Life Sentence

Five Somali men, convicted of attacking a US Navy ship, have been sentenced to life in prison by a Virginia court.

The five Somali men were convicted on federal piracy charges on November 24 last year, and the sentencing is the harshest yet for accused pirates as the US battles piracy off Africa’s coast and out into the Indian Ocean.

Prosecutors argued during trial that the five had confessed to attacking the USS Nicholas on April 1 after mistaking it for a merchant ship.

Defence lawyers had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship.

However, John S Davis, an assistant US attorney, had argued that three of the men were in a skiff that opened fire on the Nicholas with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine guns.

Davis said all the men later confessed to the attack in remarks to an interpreter on board the ship. He said they expected to make anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 from the ransom, a comparatively small sum.

The attorneys argued that the men – Gabul Abdullah Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, Abdi Mohammed Umar and Mohammed Modin Hasan – had actually hoped to be rescued.

Observers have seen that all too often the fight against piracy is hampered by legal ambiguities over the appropriate venue to prosecute captured suspects. Indeed in securing the prosecution some rarely-used 19th century maritime laws were dusted off from the statute shelves. In fact this was the first piracy case of its kind to go to trial since the Civil War, when a New York jury deadlocked on charges against 13 Southern privateers.

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