Accused Somali Pirates Head to Trial in US Court

Photo: Accused Somali Pirates Headed for US Trial: Piracy trial in US a 1st in modern history; 5 Somali men accused of firing on Naval ship

For the first time since tales of swashbuckling villains first hit the popular consciousness in adventure novels, American jurors will weigh charges of "piracy under the law of nations" in a case of five Somali men accused of firing on a US warship.

It's one of the oldest laws on the books, dating back to the early part of the 19th Century, when congress first recognized the power of American courts to punish those who would plunder ships in international waters if the pirates are brought to the United States.

It also happens to be one of the most serious crimes in the US Code, carrying a mandatory life prison sentence upon conviction.

While other alleged pirates from Somalia have recently been brought into US courts, experts say the trial that begins with jury selection in Norfolk, Va. Tuesday marks the first time in at least 100 years, and perhaps since the earliest days of the Civil War, that American jurors will hear a case in which the defendants are charged with piracy, specifically, rather than lesser or related counts.

Though the Somali men are accused of violating 11 separate laws altogether, including a series of weapons and explosives charges, a guilty verdict on the single piracy count alone would result in a term of life behind bars.

Federal prosecutors say the Somalis thought they were attacking a merchant ship when they aimed their assault rifles at a US Navy frigate as it patrolled the Indian Ocean in the dead of night on April 1.

The sailors on board the USS Nicholas, which had been on patrol for pirates, fired back and captured the five men, bringing them to the frigate's home port of Norfolk, the world's largest naval base.

David Bouchard, a defense attorney for the Somalis, says the piracy statute should not apply in this case, since the men never got anywhere close to the Navy ship.

"I think [bringing the piracy charge is] the most absurd thing I've seen the federal government do," Bouchard told ABC News. "I find it incomprehensible."

Piracy Charge Stands

US District Court Judge Mark Davis disagreed with Bouchard's interpretation of the law, allowing the piracy charge to stand in a ruling late last month.

Bouchard intends to tell jurors that the five Somali men had no hopes of taking the naval vessel, which, he says, they clearly understood to be a warship.

"They didn't shoot at anybody, or try to hurt anybody. They were trying to signal the boat," Bouchard says, arguing that the accused pirates were themselves victims of kidnapping, put up to survey the larger ship by other Somali men who escaped in a craft of their own.

"They were fishermen who were abducted," Bouchard said.

He said his clients hoped to be "rescued."

"Forced Man Defense"

But Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich, one of the nation's foremost experts on maritime law, says the "so-called 'forced man' defense" is one of the oldest used in piracy cases.

"It goes back hundreds of years. People always claim that they were compelled to be a pirate, that they'd 'walk the plank' if they didn't," Kontorovich said.

The 14-count grand jury indictment alleges that each of the five Somalis were armed with assault rifles, and that one, 26-year-old Mohammed Hasan, carried a rocket-propelled grenade.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...
See It, Share It
PHOTO: Kanye West accepts the Vanguard Award onstage during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on August 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Christopher Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin works out at Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, Aug. 30, 2015.
Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images