What will US do with 15 Somali pirates after fatal hijacking?

In the past, the US has asked other nations, such as Kenya, to handle cases involving Somali pirates. But some expect a different strategy this time.

By , Staff writer

The Department of Justice says it and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are evaluating evidence related to the hijacking of the yacht Quest and subsequent killings Tuesday of four Americans on the boat in the Arabian Sea.

The DOJ says it’s too early to say whether the 15 men who were onboard the vessel will be brought to the United States and charged with any crimes. But former prosecutors and people who follow piracy have little doubt that the US will transport the individuals to America to be charged with a variety of crimes, ranging from murder to conspiracy to piracy.

“This is important from an international-policy point of view to illustrate that we will not tolerate these actions against our citizens,” says Stan Twardy, former US attorney for Connecticut.

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Jennifer Cooke, who has followed Somali pirates for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says “public opinion” and the nature of the crime are likely to be driving forces behind a DOJ decision to prosecute the men on US soil.

“The murder changes the nature of the game,” says Ms. Cooke, Africa program director for CSIS.

In the past, the US and its naval allies have asked other nations, such as Kenya and the Seychelles, to try pirates. But piracy trials can be lengthy and expensive, says Michael Passman, a lawyer with the Chicago firm Cassiday Schade and author of articles on piracy and the law. Both of those nations have complained that piracy cases are clogging their judicial systems, says Mr. Passman.

“Depending on the case, the vessel may be flagged in one location, be owned by people in another location, and captained and crewed by people from another location,” he explains. “And you may have to call all those people as witnesses.”

If the DOJ itself decides to prosecute, one decision is where to hold the trial. The men are currently being held on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which is on patrol in those pirate-infested waters. Prosecutors might decide to hold a trial in Norfolk, Va., which is the home port of the Enterprise. Last November, the US tried and convicted five Somalis of a piracy attempt when they fired on the USS Nicholas, a frigate home-ported in Norfolk.

The DOJ could also hold the trial in New York, where in May of last year it tried and convicted a Somali, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, in the hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama and kidnapping of its captain. Mr. Muse ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.

Or, the individuals could be tried in Washington, D.C., where a Somali man, Jama Idle Ibrahim, pleaded guilty last September to piracy involving the Danish-owned freighter MV/CEC Future. He received a 25-year sentence. (Mr. Ibrahim was also sentenced last year in Norfolk, Va., to 30 years in jail for a piracy attempt against the USS Ashland.)

Even with long prison sentences for pirates, that hasn’t slowed down attempts to hijack vessels, Cooke says. In the first six weeks of 2011, there were 48 piracy attempts, 11 of them successful, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Crime Services. The pirates have taken 224 new hostages.

“It’s at a pretty high rate this year relative to previous years,” says Cooke.

One problem, she says, is that many vessels are still not following antipiracy measures suggested by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency concerned with marine safety. These include speeding up in the piracy zones, not leaving ladders hanging over the side, keeping crew on watch, employing water cannons if attacked, and keeping in touch with naval forces.

As for the incident this week, the Quest was a 58-foot sloop that was owned by Jean and Scott Adam. The Adams, who were sailing around the world, had two other Americans, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, onboard. They had broken off from others who were sailing as a larger group to try to deter such hijackings.

It won’t be difficult for prosecutors to make their case, says Mr. Twardy, who is now a defense lawyer at Day Pitney in Stamford, Conn. “We might see a lot of finger-pointing,” he says, “with some of the pirates arguing they were not the ones who shot the two couples. But this is a very tough and difficult case for the defendants.”

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