- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A jury in the Eastern District of Virginia convicted five Somali men on federal piracy charges on Wednesday for attacking a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Africa.

Prosecutors successfully argued that the five men attacked the Norfolk-based vessel, which was patrolling off the coast of Somalia, after mistaking it for a merchant ship.

The defendants, the first men to be tried on federal piracy charges since the Civil War, face mandatory life sentences in a hearing set for March 14. Besides piracy, the men were convicted of assault, conspiracy and plundering, and explosives- and weapons-related charges.

“They were just sad,” defense attorney David Bouchard told reporters in Norfolk when describing the reactions of the defendants.

The defense argued that the Somali men — Gabul Abdullah Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, Abdi Mohammed Umar and Mohammed Modin Hasan — were kidnapped fishermen who had been forced by pirates to attack the USS Nicholas. The five men pointed out that they had fled after realizing the ship was a U.S. Navy vessel.

But the prosecution countered with confessions that the Somali men had made to a translator aboard the USS Nicholas after being captured, in which they said they had expected to make between $10,000 and $40,000 in ransom for the attack. The defense tried unsuccessfully to have confessions, which were not videotaped, excluded from evidence.

“Certainly we hope the word goes forth that armed attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels are crimes against the international community and will not go unpunished,” U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride told reporters via teleconference.

Lt. j.g. Chad Robert Hutchins, who was in charge of security aboard the USS Nicholas when the Norfolk-based ship was attacked on April 1 in the Indian Ocean while on an international anti-piracy patrol, told reporters after the verdict was read, “Our justice system is great.”

He added that there was a fearful mood aboard the ship the morning of the attack. “People were scared,” he said. “People were jumping under things.”

The last piracy case in a U.S. court involved 13 Southerners who were held as security risks and exchanged for Union prisoners after a New York jury could not reach a verdict in the 1861 case.

Ken Randall, piracy scholar and dean of the University of Alabama School of Law, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times that the reason there haven’t been cases like this in the past is that “piracy has become dormant.”

“Today there is an absence of an international tribunal to try piracy cases; the International Criminal Court is without jurisdiction to do so,” he wrote.

Somalia has been without an effectively functioning central government since the early 1990s. Its territorial waters are essentially lawless and thus have become breeding grounds for aspiring pirates and terrorists.

These guilty verdicts come in the wake of a major setback to President Obama’s goal of trying international-outlaw cases, wherever possible, in civilian courts rather than military tribunals. In the first case where a Guantanamo Bay detainee was tried in a civilian court, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailiani was acquitted last week on all but one of more than 280 counts related to the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

However, Mr. Randall noted that piracy is not considered terrorism because it is not a political act.

Omar Jamal, the first secretary at Somalia’s United Nations office, said his government would ask “to have those convicted of piracy to be returned to Somalia so they can serve their terms.”

However, the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty over its national territory makes such a handover unlikely.

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