Somali pirates sentenced to life in US prison

A US court sentenced five Somali pirates to life in prison for attacking an American frigate last year on an anti-piracy mission off the east coast of Africa.

Updated: Mar 15, 2011, 10:46 AM IST

Washington: A US court sentenced five Somali pirates to life in prison for attacking an American frigate last year on an anti-piracy mission off the east coast of Africa.

The Somalis, the first people to be convicted of piracy in the United States since 1820, received an additional 80 years each for firearms and other piracy-related charges during a four-hour hearing in Norfolk, Virginia.

"Today marks the longest sentence ever given to a pirate in US court, following the first time in over 190 years that an American jury has convicted a defendant of piracy," federal attorney Neil MacBride said.

The five were convicted in November on charges including piracy, attacking to plunder a maritime vessel and assault with a dangerous weapon for their roles in the April 2010 attack on the USS Nicholas, which they believed to be a merchant vessel.

Piracy carries a mandatory sentence in the United States of life in prison, while firearms charges and the plundering charge carry sentences of 30 years to life.

Defense lawyers had contested the piracy conviction, arguing that the Somalis were simply fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to take part in the attack.

But a statement issued by MacBride, the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which took part in the investigation, said evidence and trial testimony showed the men were pirates on a planned mission.

"They used a larger ship full of supplies, along with two smaller vessels loaded with assault weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that served as attack boats," the statement said.

In April 1, 2010, three of the men boarded one of the small vessels "and set out to pirate what they believed to be a merchant ship," it said. "They opened fire on a ship, which they later discovered was the USS Nicholas."

A US federal judge threw out the pirates` appeal last week.

Their sentences were handed down days after 13 other Somalis and one Yemeni were indicted by a US court for their roles in a pirate attack against a yacht with four Americans on board as it sailed off the coast of Somalia last month.

At least three of the defendants in that case stand accused of killing the retired US couple and two friends who were sailing around the world on the yacht, the S/V Quest.
They were the first US citizens to die in a spate of high-seas kidnappings in recent years that has focused world attention on the pirate-infested waters off Somalia.

MacBride said Monday`s heavy sentences should send a stern message that "armed attacks on US-flagged vessels carry severe consequences in US courts.

"Modern-day pirates not only threaten human lives but also disrupt international commerce by extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments," he said, putting the annual cost of piracy off the Horn of Africa at around $12 billion.
On Monday a Bangladeshi shipping company paid a ransom of $4 million to secure the return of a vessel with 26 people on board that was commandeered in December around 340 miles (550 kilometers) off the coast of India.

Also Monday, the Indian navy captured 61 suspected Somali pirates after a firefight, and rescued 13 fishermen whose boat was hijacked the same month and turned into a pirate mothership.

As US-led military patrols have been stepped up, Horn of Africa pirates have been broadening their horizons and commandeering ships far from the waters off Somalia.