U.S. Jury Convicts 5 Somali Men In Navy Ship Attack

Originally published on November 24, 2010 4:38 pm

A jury in Norfolk, Va. convicted five Somali men Wednesday of international piracy, in what the Justice Department calls the first international piracy conviction in the United States since 1820.

Each of the defendants stood quietly, listening to an interpreter reveal their fate: guilty on all counts, including international piracy.

U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said that conviction alone could send them to prison for the rest of their lives.

"Today marks the first jury conviction of piracy in more than 190 years," MacBride said in a conference call with reporters. "These five Somali pirates were convicted of an armed assault on the high seas against what they thought was a merchant vessel but turned out to be a U.S. Navy frigate engaged in counterpiracy operations off the horn of Africa."

Prosecutors told the jury that three of the defendants fired at the USS Nicholas on April 1. But sailors shot back with machine guns, overpowering the accused pirates. Authorities say the men eventually confessed onboard the Navy vessel after they were given food, clean clothes and all the cigarettes they wanted.

Piracy -- especially off the coast of Somalia -- is a growing problem. MacBride cited recent data that reflect more than 42 piracy incidents worldwide in the past month. "Modern-day pirates not only threaten human lives but also disrupt international commerce by extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments," he said.

The trial against Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Adbullahi Ali, Abdi Wale Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher and Abdi Mohammed Umar took nine days.

Attorneys for the Somali men are likely to appeal the convictions and to argue that the men never actually got control of the Navy vessel, so they can't be considered pirates under the law.

Defense lawyers told Associated Press reporters the accused pirates came from poor backgrounds and only wanted to improve their desperate lives. They may ask the U.S. government to let the men serve their prison terms in Somalia.

They will be sentenced March 14 by U.S. District Judge Mark Davis.

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A jury in Norfolk, Virginia has convicted five Somali men of international piracy. The Justice Department says this is the first trial of pirates in the U.S. since the Civil War. But legal experts say it probably won't be the last, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Five young Somali men stood quietly this afternoon in a Virginia courtroom listening to an interpreter read their fate. Guilty on all counts, including international piracy. U.S. attorney Neil MacBride says that conviction alone could send them to prison for the rest of their lives.

Mr. NEIL MACBRIDE (Attorney): Today marks the first jury conviction of piracy in more than 190 years. These five Somali pirates were convicted of an armed assault on the high seas against what they thought was a merchant vessel but turned out to be a U.S. Navy frigate engaged in counter piracy operations off the horn of Africa.

JOHNSON: Prosecutors say three of the defendants fired at the USS Nicholas on April 1st. Two of the men carried assault weapons. The third, a rocket-propelled grenade. But sailors shot back with machine guns, easily overpowering the accused pirates. Authorities say the men eventually confessed onboard the boat after the Navy gave them food, clean clothes and all the cigarettes they wanted.

Piracy - especially off the coast of Somalia - is a huge problem. One that MacBride says can't be ignored.

Mr. MACBRIDE: Modern-day pirates not only threaten human lives but also disrupt international commerce by extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments.

JOHNSON: He said there were 42 pirate incidents worldwide just in the last month. Some accused pirates go to Kenyan courts. Others recently got shipped to Germany. And many are set free because it takes too much energy to send them overseas for prosecution. But in this case, the U.S. proceeded because it was a Navy ship with American sailors under threat.

Attorneys for the Somali men say they're likely to appeal the convictions and to argue the men never actually got control of the Navy vessel, so they can't be considered pirates under the law. Defense lawyers told reporters the case was sad because the accused pirates came from poor backgrounds and only wanted to improve their desperate lives. They may ask the U.S. government to let the men serve their prison terms back home in Somalia.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.