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.