What is Piracy?

The trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they have ever captured will begin this week in Virginia under a cloud of uncertainty about what the definition of piracy is.

Piracy definition in dispute as piracy trial looms

By Brock Vergakis, CBS News

NORFOLK, Va. — The trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they have ever captured will begin this week in Virginia under a cloud of uncertainty about what the definition of piracy is.

Mohammad Saaili Shibin is charged with piracy and a host of other charges for his role in the 2011 hijacking of an American yacht off the coast of Africa in which all four passengers on board were shot and killed.

The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first U.S. citizens killed in pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean despite regular international patrols by warships. Negotiations with the U.S. Navy were under way when shots were fired aboard the yacht. The Navy had agreed to let the pirates take the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but court documents say the men didn’t think they would get the amount of money they had sought from the exchange. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars.

Shibin’s case is unique from the 14 others who were charged in the case because he had never set foot onboard the sailboat, calling into question whether he can be considered a pirate, according to his attorney.

At issue is whether piracy is legally defined as committing robbery at sea or whether it entails a broader definition that can entail simply attacking a ship or facilitating that attack. U.S. law says piracy is defined by ‘the law of nations’ and what that definition is, as well as who defines it, is at the heart of the dispute.

Prosecutors acknowledge Shibin didn’t board the Quest, but they say he acted as a land-based hostage negotiator who researched the victims using online search engines to determine what ransom to seek. He was arrested inside Somalia by the FBI after being turned over by Somali troops.

Of the 14 others, who were all captured at sea by the U.S. military, 11 have been sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to piracy. Three others await trial on murder and other death-penalty eligible charges.

Jury selection in Shibin’s case is scheduled to open Tuesday morning and opening arguments could be heard later that day. But it’s unclear whether a jury will ever get to decide whether Shibin is guilty of piracy.

That’s because U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar has been seeking guidance from a federal appeals court on what the legal definition of piracy is in another case before deciding whether the piracy charges against Shibin should be dismissed. He also wrote Monday that he wanted to hear the facts of the case during trial before making his decision.

At issue is whether piracy is defined solely as robbery at sea or whether a broader definition applies. Federal judges in Norfolk have issued two different rulings in two separate cases involving attacks on U.S. Navy ships.

The 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals heard verbal arguments on the definition of piracy in September, but has not indicated when it might rule. The ruling, or lack thereof, will likely have a significant affect on Doumar’s decision on whether to dismiss the piracy charges as well as what his instructions to the jury will be if charges are not dismissed. Regardless, Shibin still faces weapons, hostage-taking and kidnapping charges, among others.

Shibin is also charged with piracy in the 2010 hijacking of a German merchant vessel. Prosecutors say Shibin earned between $30,000 and $50,000 for his role in securing an estimated multimillion-dollar ransom for the ship’s release.

If convicted of piracy in either hijacking he faces a mandatory life sentence. Shibin attorney James Broccoletti contends that because Shibin didn’t board and rob the ships that he can’t be convicted of piracy. Without a ruling from the appeals court, Broccoletti said he would continue to pursue that line of defense.

“Everyone anticipated that the court would have ruled by now, so we’re still in a holding pattern. We still have another two weeks to go before the jury gets the case. I’m going to try the case based on the instructions I’ve submitted,” he said.

In prosecutors’ proposed jury instructions, they contend that inciting or intentionally facilitating an act of violence against another ship at sea is enough to result in a guilty plea.

Through a spokesman, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride declined to comment Monday.

Source: CBS News


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