Piracy charge with mandatory life penalty looms

NEW YORK (AP) âÄî The sole surviving pirate from an attack on an American cargo ship off the Somali coast will be tried as an adult after he was portrayed Tuesday as the brazen ringleader of a band of pirates who shot at the ship’s captain and bragged about prior acts of piracy. The bravado authorities say 18-year-old Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse displayed as the first pirate to board the Maersk Alabama on April 8 had evaporated by the time he entered a federal courtroom to face a piracy charge that carries a mandatory life prison sentence. At one point, Muse sobbed as his lawyers notified the court that they had spoken to his family in Somalia. He lost his first court battle when his court-appointed public defenders failed to convince a judge that he was 15 and could be processed through the courts in secrecy as a juvenile. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck cited conflicting testimony that Muse’s father gave about his children’s ages during telephone testimony from Somalia and his own failure to testify about his age as reasons to find he could be treated by the courts as an adult. Peck also noted that prosecutors had produced evidence during a closed hearing that Muse admitted he had lied to an FBI agent about his age before admitting he was 18 and that one of his brothers had confirmed he was 18. The decision to treat him as an adult led to the unsealing of a criminal complaint by FBI Agent Steven E. Sorrells that provided dramatic new details about the ship’s seizure and what transpired before U.S. snipers shot three Somali pirates and Muse was captured. Sorrells wrote that the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, told him he fired multiple warning flares at the pirates’ boat to try to chase them away. The agent said Muse was the first pirate to board the boat, armed with a gun, as it was about 280 miles off the Somali coast. “From the deck of the Maersk Alabama, Muse fired his gun at the captain who was still in the bridge,” Sorrells said. The agent said Muse entered the bridge, told the captain to stop the ship and “conducted himself as the leader of the pirates.” After the other pirates boarded, three of them accompanied the captain to a safe where he took out about $30,000 in cash, which the pirates then took, Sorrells said. Sorrells said the pirates held Phillips on a life boat for four days, with Muse telling the captain at one point that he had hijacked other ships before. After Phillips tried to escape by jumping in the water, the pirates fired a gun at him and later tied him up and hit him, Sorrells said. Sorrells noted that Muse left the life boat on April 12 and one of the remaining pirates shot a gun on the life boat later that day. “Less than one hour later, the captain heard several gun shots on the life boat, and saw that the three remaining pirates had been shot,” he said. Muse was charged with several counts, including piracy under the law of nations. That charge carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said Muse initially told a Somali interpreter on April 12, when he was first detained, that he was 16, then that he was 19, then that he was 26. Muse indicated a day later on a different U.S. Navy vessel that he was 19, McGuire said. The prosecutor said Muse told an FBI agent Monday that his age was 15 but later apologized to the agent for lying, telling him he was 18, going on 19. Muse, his 5-foot-2 frame so slight that his prison clothes draped loosely, at one point put his head in his uninjured hand. His left hand is heavily bandaged from a wound he suffered during the skirmish on the Norfolk, Va.-based cargo ship. He arrived in New York on Monday evening, handcuffed with a chain wrapped around his waist and about a dozen federal agents surrounding him. In addition to piracy, he was charged with conspiracy to seize a ship by force; discharging a firearm; aiding and abetting the discharge of a firearm during a conspiracy to seize a ship by force; conspiracy to commit hostage taking; and brandishing a firearm.