Five Somali nationals were sentenced to life in prison on Monday for acts of piracy in their attempt almost a year ago to seize and ransom what they thought was a merchant ship off the coast of East Africa.
Rather than attacking a defenseless tanker or freighter, the would-be marauders launched a nighttime assault on what turned out to be a US Navy warship.
The pirate skiff, armed with two assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade, was badly outgunned by the USS Nicholas, a frigate. The three pirates in the skiff were taken prisoner, as were two others on a larger vessel nearby.
They were transported to Norfolk, Va., where they were tried and convicted in federal court on charges including piracy, attacking to plunder a vessel, and committing an act of violence against persons on a vessel.
In addition to the life sentences, US District Judge Mark Davis also ordered the men to serve consecutive sentences of 80 years in prison.
“Today marks the longest sentence ever given to a pirate in US court,” said US Attorney Neil MacBride. He added that the case was the first time in 190 years an American jury had convicted a defendant of piracy.
“Today’s sentences should send a clear message to those who attempt to engage in piracy: armed attacks on US-flagged vessels carry severe consequences in US courts,” he said.
“The skull and crossbones may be a relic of the past, but the threat of violent piracy remains very real,” said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office. “Modern-day pirates who wreak havoc off the Horn of Africa will be met with modern-day American justice,” she said.
Last month, a group of pirates took four Americans hostage on their sailboat in the Arabian Sea. US warships responded to the incident, but all four Americans were shot dead by the pirates during the standoff.
The five pirates convicted of assaulting the USS Nicholas were identified as Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Abdullahi Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, and Abdi Mohammed Umar. The assault took place on April 1, 2010. They were convicted on Nov. 24.
Mr. MacBride said modern-day pirates threaten human lives and disrupt international commerce by attempting to extort hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments. He said 650 to 800 people are believed to be held hostage by Somali pirates, exacting a cost as high as $12 billion a year.