- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Five Somali men accused of attacking a U.S. Navy ship off Africa’s coast were convicted on federal piracy charges Wednesday, in what experts said was the first trial of its kind since the Civil War.

The verdict was handed down by a jury in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. The five men stood silently as the verdict was read. They face mandatory life terms at a sentencing hearing set for March 14 in Norfolk.

Prosecutors argued during trial that the five had confessed to attacking the USS Nicholas on April 1 after mistaking it for a merchant ship.

The Nicholas, based in Norfolk, was part of an international flotilla fighting piracy in the seas off Somalia.

Defense attorneys had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship.

John S. Davis, an assistant U.S. attorney, had argued that three of the men were in a skiff that opened fire on the Nicholas with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine guns.

Mr. Davis said all the men later confessed to the attack in a confession to an interpreter aboard the Nicholas. He said they expected to make anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 from the ransom.

Defense attorneys said it is not uncommon in virtually lawless Somalia for pirates to capture fishermen and essentially enslave them, forcing them to either do their bidding or be killed. They said that’s what happened to their clients.

The attorneys argued that the men — Gabul Abdullah Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, Abdi Mohammed Umar and Mohammed Modin Hasan — had actually hoped to be rescued.

They also questioned the validity of the confessions obtained by the Navy’s interpreter. The confessions were not videotaped.

Other countries have recently held piracy trials, but legal and maritime scholars say one of the last in the U.S. was in 1861 when 13 Southern privateers aboard the schooner Savannah were prosecuted in New York City. The jury deadlocked and the men were later exchanged with the South.

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