- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The standoff between hostage-taking pirates and a U.S. Navy warship looks and feels like a military showdown, but as a matter of law, it’s more like the aftermath of a bank robbery gone bad.

Whether a U.S. citizen is taken hostage at a downtown bank branch or on the high seas, federal authorities can claim the authority to capture suspects and prosecute them in U.S. courts.

That means, if the Somali pirates holding a U.S. cargo ship captain hostage in the Indian Ocean make it off their small lifeboat alive, they may have to answer to the FBI.

U.S. law applies to any crime committed aboard a U.S. ship, or aboard any ship when the victim is a U.S. citizen.

Rarely does that translate into a piracy case. The most common criminal investigation launched in international waters? Assaults committed on cruise ships, then-Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker told Congress in 2005.

But in this case, the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, is from Massachusetts. The ship is owned and operated by Maersk Line Ltd., a U.S. subsidiary of a Danish company. That gives the FBI authority to investigate and, if necessary, arrest.

“In the event a vessel was seized or individuals onboard were held against their will, a joint investigation and response would be coordinated with the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense,” Swecker told Congress.

The U.S. military has agreed to transfer captured pirates to Kenya, but that agreement has never been used following piracy against a U.S. ship. Attorney General Eric Holder was noncommittal when asked whether the Justice Department would prosecute pirates in the U.S. following this standoff.

“There’s not been an active piracy, I think, against a United States vessel in hundreds of years, and so I’m not sure exactly what would happen,” Holder said Wednesday. “But we’ll obviously do what we have to do to make sure that the maritime life of this nation is protected.”

One reason for the reluctance is that the rules change depending on how the standoff plays out. If the pirates are captured at sea, it will be much easier for U.S. authorities to prosecute. If the pirates make it back to Somalia, things get murkier because the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.


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