The sole surviving Somali accused of hijacking the Maersk Alabama and taking its American captain hostage off the eastern coast of Somalia was formally charged with piracy and hostage-taking in federal court in New York Tuesday.
"An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations," said acting US Attorney Lev Dassin, in announcing the indictment. "Pirates target ships and cargo, but threaten international commerce and human life. Today's charges demonstrate our commitment to hold pirates accountable for their crimes."
A dispute about Mr. Muse's age prompted Judge Andrew Peck to temporarily close the hearing to the public. Federal prosecutors allege that he is 18 years old, but defense attorneys say Muse is as young as 15 and should be tried as a juvenile. They told Judge Peck they were prepared to put Mr. Muse's father on the phone from Somalia to prove it.
On hearing his family mentioned, the rail-thin, diminutive Muse – standing just over five feet – sobbed audibly.
After hearing the arguments from both sides behind closed doors, Judge Peck ruled that Muse would be tried as an adult and reopened the hearing to the public.
Defense attorneys can still appeal Peck's ruling and are likely to do so, according to some legal experts.
If Muse is tried as an adult, he could face life in prison for several of the counts brought against him, according to the indictment. If a court determines that Muse is a juvenile, he could spend as little as three years in jail.
"If they decide to treat you as a juvenile, there are different consequences," says Jim Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "The penalties are much less if one is found to be a juvenile delinquent."
The indictment against Muse portrays him as the leader of the band of four gun-wielding pirates who boarded the cargo ship Maersk Alabama in the dim dawn of April 8. After firing at the bridge, Muse held Captain Phillips and several other crew members captive there as he robbed the boat's safe of $30,000. He then ordered Phillips to tell the rest of the crew to surrender. When they did not, Muse left the bridge in search of them, according to the indictment. A crew member then tackled him and after a scuffle Muse was subdued, bound, and brought to a secure location in the ship where other crew members were hiding.
After several hours, the other pirates agreed to swap Muse in exchange for a lifeboat and safe passage from the ship, according to the indictment. When they left the Maersk Alabama, they took Phillips with them. Phillips was then held hostage by the pirates on the lifeboat. On April 12, Muse boarded the USS Bainbridge looking for medical help. He also demanded safe passage for himself and the three other pirates in return for Phillips' release. While Muse was on the ship, US Navy Seal sharpshooters killed the other three pirates still holding Phillips hostage in the lifeboat, rescuing Phillips.
"Modern-day pirates bear little resemblance to the swashbuckling antiheroes of popular fiction," said FBI assistant director in charge Joseph M. Demarest. "The pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama were armed hijackers who robbed the ship, threatened the crew, and held the captain hostage at gunpoint."
•Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.