Jury convicts Somalis of piracy

Five men face life in prison for firing on U.S. frigate

WASHINGTON – A federal jury convicted five Somali men Wednesday of piracy on the high seas, the first such verdict in an American court in nearly 200 years, for shooting at a U.S. Navy warship disguised as a merchant vessel in the Indian Ocean last spring.

The conviction on all counts after a dramatic trial in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison plus 80 years. Defense lawyers said they will appeal.

The five defendants stood without expression and listened to an interpreter through earphones as the court clerk pronounced them each guilty on 14 counts, including attempts to plunder a vessel and assault with a deadly weapon.

“Today’s conviction demonstrates that armed attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels are crimes against the international community and that pirates will face severe consequences in U.S. courts,” said Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia.

He emphasized that Somali sea bandits have devastated normal shipping off the Horn of Africa, and that U.S. courts and warships are not the only answer. “It’s an international problem, and it’s going to require an international solution,” MacBride said.

The five Somalis, all in their 20s, were accused of firing AK-47 assault rifles at the guided missile frigate Nicholas as it patrolled for pirates more than 500 nautical miles off the east coast of Somalia on April 1.

Prosecutors said Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Abdullahi Ali and Abdi Wali Dire sped up to the warship in an open skiff shortly after midnight and began shooting. They surrendered after the Navy returned fire from heavy machine guns.

The other two Somalis – Gurewardher and Abdi Mohammed Umar – were captured several hours later on a so-called mother ship that carried fuel, water and other supplies.

The Nicholas had dimmed its running lights, slowed its speed and made other changes to resemble a cargo ship. No one was injured in the brief firefight.

The Somalis insisted in court that they were innocent fishermen who had been kidnapped and beaten by pirates, and then forced to attack the Nicholas. The real brigands, the defendants said, escaped on a third boat.

But James R. Theuer, another defense lawyer, said the jury believed the confessions that the five men gave to a Navy investigator several days after their capture, and not their denials in court.

“Frankly, it really came down to the confessions,” Theuer said.

The five will be sentenced on March 14.

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