April 21, 2009 -- The surviving Somali pirate suspect from the attack on the U.S. flagged merchant ship Maersk Alabama sobbed in a Manhattan courtroom today where a judge determined that he will be tried as an adult. There is still some confusion over the actual age of Abdulwali Muse, whose mother claims he is 16 years old, but whom the government believes to be older.
Muse appeared in a federal magistrate court in a navy blue prison uniform, standing barely 5'4" with his left hand wrapped in a white bandage where he was injured in the attack on the Maersk. At one point, Muse sobbed audibly, covered his face with his hand and was soothed by his court-appointed attorney. When the judge informed Muse of his right to a court appointed lawyer he said "I understand, I have no money."
Defense attorneys Deidre von Dorum and Philip Weinstein said that they had not yet established whether their client Muse was himself a hostage of other pirates and that if he were that it would change the circumstances, perhaps making him eligible for wartime conventions.
"We believe he will be exonerated," von Dornum said.
"He's scared" said Weinstein, who added that his client had been blindfolded during his some of his time in custody, shackled and that "he'd never been out of Somalia".
Muse has been charged with five criminal counts including piracy under the law of nations, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, and conspiracy to commit hostage taking. The charge of piracy alone carries a mandatory life sentence in prison.
"An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations. Pirates target ships and cargo, but threaten international commerce and human life," said Acting United States Attorney Lev Dassin.
"Today's charges demonstrate our commitment to hold pirates accountable for their crimes. Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse and his fellow pirates attacked an American crew and its American captain on a ship flying an American flag. Now, Muse has been brought to face justice in an American courtroom," Dassin said.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Peck sealed the Muse court proceeding and asked reporters and others to leave the courtroom while the question of his age, raised by his defense attorneys, was addressed. The attorneys are hoping to get the suspect's father, who reportedly lives in Philadelphia, Penn., on the phone to help confirm his age. Muse held his face and appeared to start crying before witnesses to required to leave. The courtroom was filled with reporters, federal officials and others at the time.
Muse arrived in New York Monday night, landing in a driving rain storm at a nearby airbase and driven from there to the FBI's New York headquarters. His hands chained at his waist, he smiled broadly as lights from a battery of media cameras put him in a spotlight while FBI agents assigned to his case brought him into their headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Muse was flown to New York hours after his mother appealed to President Obama for his release saying her son is just 16 years old. The government gives his age at this point as "over 18".
According to The Associated Press, investigators have determined that from the attack on the Alabama and the hostage-taking of freighter captain Richard Phillips, the suspect is at least 18 years old, one official told the press agency.
The alleged pirate's mother insists her son is only 16 and offered a different version of his name -- Abdi Wali Abdulqadir Muse.
"He is 16. I sent him to school. He'd gone missing, and I had been looking for him for 15 days," she told the BBC.
"Students told me that my son was seen to be talking with pirates. He was going around with them. When I could not find him, students said to me they thought he had gone with pirates," the pirate's mother, identified as Hassan, said from her home in Galka'yo town, 465 miles north of Somalia's capital.
"I would like to request from the U.S. government and President Obama to release my son. He has nothing to do with that crime, he is only a child, and he has been used for that crime by the other men," she said, pleading.
"If the United States of America is putting my son on trial, I would like to be taken there. That is all I am requesting," she said.
He was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge, shortly before Navy Seal snipers killed the three remaining pirates holding Phillips in a lifeboat.
Lawyer Ron Kuby Prepares to Defend Pirate
Officials decided to send him to trial in New York in part, because the FBI office there has a history of handling cases in Africa involving major crimes against Americans, such as the al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
One reason that the FBI investigation is being run out of New York is the office there oversees cases involving U.S. citizens in Africa.
Ron Kuby, a New York-based civil rights lawyer, told the AP that he has been in discussions about forming a legal team to represent the Somali pirate.
"I think in this particular case, there's a grave question as to whether America was in violation of principles of truce in warfare on the high seas," said Kuby. "This man seemed to come onto the Bainbridge under a flag of truce to negotiate. He was then captured. There is a question whether he is lawfully in American custody and serious questions as to whether he can be prosecuted because of his age."
The last time a person was charged with piracy in the U.S. was in 2002. Lei Shi, a cook on a Taiwanese fishing boat, was upset about being beaten and demoted from cook to deck hand. On March 14, 2002, he took two large knives from the galley and fatally stabbed the captain and first mate. He then took over the boat for two days before the crew overpowered him, stuffed him in a storage compartment and headed for Hawaii. The Coast Guard intercepted the boat and FBI agents arrested Shi for committing piracy: seizing control over a ship by force and committing acts of violence that endanger maritime navigation. A federal jury convicted him in 2003, and the U.S. District Court in Hawaii sentenced him to 36 years in prison. Shi appealed, but his conviction was upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
ABC News' Ren Holding contributed to this report.
This post has been updated.