25 April 2010

Inside The Courtroom With Somali Pirates

Link to Article

Machine gun. Lawyer. Virginia. USS Nicholas. And USS Ashland.
Those were the only words that most onlookers in a federal courtroom in Norfolk, Va., could understand Friday afternoon as an unidentified man beaming in via telephone read 11 alleged Somali pirates the U.S. government's case against them.
"Was that Arabic?" asked one reporter, who was told the translator spoke Somali, the national language of Somalia. Another reporter expressed surprise that "Somali" is in fact a language.
The last time anyone was prosecuted in the Eastern District of Virginia for piracy on the open seas was sometime during the Nineteenth Century, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said during a press conference later in the day.
The Somali men's trip to the Eastern District of Virginia was likely the first time they had ever been in contact with U.S. soil, much less the American justice system.
Two weeks earlier, six of the men were in a small boat off the Horn of Africa when they began firing on the USS Ashland, which was conducting "routine" operations in the Gulf of Aden, according to the U.S. Navy.
The six men, Mohammed Hasan, Gabul Ali, Abdi Dire, Abdi Gurewardher and Abdi Umar, wanted to hijack and rob the American ship, according to federal prosecutors.
But the USS Ashland returned fire, engulfing the small boat in flames and forcing the six Somali men to abandon their vessel, the U.S. Navy said in a press release at the time. They were taken aboard the USS Ashland and received medical treatment, the press release said.
On Friday, one of the men, wearing a dark suit, had to be pushed into the Norfolk courtroom by a U.S. Marshal. He was in a wheelchair, the bottom half of his right leg amputated due to injuries he suffered during the attack.
What was left of his right leg rested on a small pillow attached to one arm of the wheelchair. His left leg was completely wrapped in bandages.
Another Somali man hobbled into the courtroom on crutches, his hands and head wrapped in bandages, with much of his face darkened by bruises. He took a seat in the front row of what is usually the jury box.
The other four Somali men, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, also sat in the jury box.
Their handcuffs had been removed.
For the next 15 minutes, the unidentified man on the telephone read the six-page indictment against them, his Somali translation being broadcast throughout the courtroom.
"USS Ashland" and "Virginia" were the only non-Somali words he spoke as he told the six alleged pirates how a grand jury had indicted them on five counts, including "Piracy Under the Law of Nations" and "Attack to Plunder Vessel."
Then a court official said, "All rise," as a federal magistrate judge entered the courtroom. A U.S. Marshal motioned to the six men to stand up.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Tommy Miller entered, at one point looking taken aback by the sight of the man in the wheelchair.
He then gave the six men a brief tutorial on their rights in the U.S. criminal justice system, including the right to remain silent.
"If you make a statement, that statement can be used against you at trial," said Miller, whose remarks were quickly translated into Somali by the unidentified man on the phone.
The six men's faces stood blank.

Miller told them that they will face trial.

"That will be a trial to determine if you committed any of these offenses," he said.
Also, he said, the U.S. Attorney's office had informed the court that the six men have no assets, so lawyers would be appointed for them and paid for by the U.S. government.

The translator chose to use "lawyer" himself.
In addition, Miller told the six men that, if convicted of piracy, they face life in prison. And for some of the other charges against them, use of a machine gun could warrant harsher sentences.

The translator couldn't find a Somali equivalent for "Machine gun," so he used the English version.
Finally, Miller told the six men they would be held without bond until Wednesday, when they would appear in court again for a detention hearing.
At that time, Miller said, a trial date would be set.
The six men, whose ages could not be verified by authorities, did not enter pleas.
Prosecutors want them held until trial, deeming them a threat to the public.

A similar scenario unfolded an hour earlier, when five other Somali men were brought into the Norfolk courtroom to hear that a grand jury had indicted them on six counts, including piracy.
In this hearing, though, the defendants were dressed in dark green jumpsuits, one of them had to repeatedly be told by a U.S. Marshal to sit quietly, and another picked his nose in open court.
Four days prior, according to the indictment, all five left Somalia looking for a merchant ship to "pirate." They found the USS Nicholas, allegedly using a large supply ship and two small vessels loaded with assault weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade to launch an attack on the U.S. ship.
The efforts by Maxamed Saciid, Mohammed Jamah, Jaamac Ciidle, Adbicasiis Cabaase, Abdirasaq Abshir and Mahamed Hassan, failed, and they were taken into custody, according to federal authorities.
At the press conference later in the day, MacBride, the U.S. Attorney, insisted that prosecuting alleged Somali pirates in U.S. courts is the "appropriate" thing to do, at least in these two cases.
"Piracy threatens human lives and disrupts international commerce," he said. "When pirates attack U.S. vessels by force, they must face severe consequences."
He said he hopes these cases send a message that "attacks on U.S. interests will not be tolerated."
A reported asked him whether the target audience of such a sentiment can even receive the message in war-ravaged Somalia, with its limited U.S. media presence.
He seemed to suggest it's worth trying.

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