Somali “Pirate” Pleads Guilty and Avoids Life Sentence

by Julian Ku

The young Somali captured last year in dramatic U.S. Navy operation has plea bargained himself into a minimum 27 year sentence.

A Somali man has pleaded guilty in New York’s court to seizing a US ship and kidnapping its captain last year.

Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse now faces a minimum of 27 years in prison. He is expected to be sentenced in October.

Muse is the only surviving attacker on the Maersk Alabama merchant ship off Somalia’s coast in April 2009.

A couple of observations about this result, which should caution folks excited about the effectiveness of U.S. federal courts in combatting piracy. (It appears the defendant avoided a piracy conviction and settled for a lesser charge).

1) Timing: Muse was captured in March 2009 and charged with, among other things, “piracy as defined in the law of nations,” under 18 U.S.C. 1651. It has taken 13 months to get a plea bargain on a lesser charge???  If we were just going to plea bargain him, why did it take so long?

2) Evidence: The logistics of finding translators, and dealing with classified evidence, is another reason these trials are going to take a fair amount of time.  Case in point: the federal trial in Norfolk, Va of another group of Somali pirates was recently delayed for five months just so the parties could sort through classified evidence and find translators.

I don’t say federal courts are doing a bad job here.  But the logistical difficulties are going to make this a very weak and ineffective deterrent to further piracy. As Anne Applebaum notes, the other option was tried by the Russians recently when they “released” a group of Somali pirates on a dinghy 350 miles from shore without an navigation equipment.  The 21st century version of “walking the plank”?

One Response

  1. I understand the yearning for expeditive measures such as the approach the Russians took, but I hear an echo of something a bit suspicious in the “efficiency” argument. 

    Yes there is a need for translators and that takes time to procure.  Yes there may be classified information that has to be sorted through and that takes time.  Yes the plea bargain took 13 months from capture.  I am not sure why these things are bad things since we are accusing people of very serious crimes with very long penalties. 

    Is it that they are not dashing Johnny Depp or Errol Flynn type pirates but are Somali and unsophisticated that means that the process is to throw them to the sharks? 

    As to the other European nations that have taken the Russian solution, the paymasters of the pirates are most likely completely indifferent to the death at sea of the low level pirates.  The options of the low-level pirates do not appear to be too great in any event so I doubt there is any deterrence in this approach – just reciprocal barbarity now coming from so called civilized states. 

    And you are either civilized or you are not – that is common sense.  Common sense preached for others that reduces human dignity is a bit suspicious to me – even for Somali pirates.  “Taking them out and shooting them” is something we have been seeking to limit in this world in the idea of due process. 

    I guess this is more evidence of the degradation of our moral compasses we have seen over the decade in the torture debates.

    I am sure there are reasonable solutions if people look beyond the expeditive approach.  One thing in the US would be to modernize our piracy law.  A student of mine did a Law Review Note in comparative piracy law looking English, French, Australian, Kenyan and US law.  The US law is very outdated.


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