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US Charges Young Somali with Piracy on High Seas


A young Somali man has appeared in a U.S. court charged with piracy.

Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse is the sole survivor of a pirate attack on a U.S. cargo ship earlier this month off the coast of Somalia.

On April 8, Somali pirates tried to commandeer the container ship Maersk Alabama - but failed to do so after the 20 man crew regained control of the vessel. The pirates took its captain, Richard Phillips, aboard a lifeboat and held him hostage for several days. Muse was injured in a skirmish with the Maersk Alabama crew and was in custody of the U.S. military when on April 12 Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three pirates and rescued Captain Phillips.

Muse appeared before a U.S. Federal judge in New York on April 21 and was charged with - among other things - piracy.

J. Peter Pham, a maritime security expert with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia says there is a specific U.S. legal statute dealing with piracy.

"The controlling statute is section 1651 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code - it's the Federal Penal Code. And it's pretty sweet and to the point," he said. ''It says, literally: 'Whoever on the high seas commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States shall be imprisoned for life.' It's going to be a federal trial in the federal district court of New York and it's going to be a jury trial. And the defendant will have his day in court and if convicted, the sentence is life imprisonment."

Pham says the U.S. hasn't prosecuted anyone for the crime of piracy in more than a century.

"So it's going to be a new experience both for the prosecution and the defense. It's not unlike the situation we found ourselves in the early 1990s when Andrew McCarthy [former assistant U.S. attorney leading the prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others in the 1995 terrorism trial] and his team, in the same district court, had to bring themselves up to speed on the law of terrorism. So it's going to be a new experience," he said.

Analysts, such as Roger Middleton with the London-based Chatham House, say U.S. authorities could have transferred Muse over to another country for trial.

"They could have handed him over to Kenya because they have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kenyan government that Kenya will prosecute pirates captured by the United States," he aid. "But I think because American citizens and an American company and an American ship was so intimately involved in that particular instance, there was a desire to take him back to America and prosecute him there under American law," said Middleton.

Now that Muse is in the United States, and given the publicity of the upcoming legal proceedings, some analysts say it could turn into a show trial.

"It could turn into a circus, but it could also serve as a legal precedent as well, depending on how the trial goes," said Peter Chalk, who is with the RAND Corporation. "The cost and the logistics associated with getting these people back to the United States in order to stand trial - I can't see the U.S. wanting to do this on a consistent basis. So I think they are going to continually be looking for another alternative which precludes having to bring these people back to stand trial in the U.S," he said.

Chalk and others say the alternative, inevitably, points back to Kenya.

But they also say to resolve the piracy problem the international community must address the lack of governance in Somalia - a country described by most analysts as a failed state. But many experts say the world community lacks the political willingness to tackle what seems to be an intractable problem.

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