A U.S. judge has dismissed piracy charges against six Somali men accused of attacking a U.S. Navy ship off the Horn of Africa in April, although the group still faces several lesser counts.
Attorneys for the men had argued the defendants' actions did not amount to piracy because they did not board or take control of the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden or take anything of value from it. U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in the eastern city of Norfolk, Virginia agreed Tuesday, ruling that the government failed to establish that any of the "unauthorized acts of aggression" committed constituted piracy under the law.
Prosecutors accused the six of opening fire on the USS Ashland from a small skiff. The U.S. vessel returned fire, sinking the skiff and killing one occupant. All others on board were captured. The U.S. Justice Department has declined to comment on the case.
Defense lawyers for five other Somalis accused in a similar attack on the frigate USS Nicholas on March 31 are also seeking dismissal of the piracy count, which carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison if convicted.
The Associated Press news agency reported that a separate hearing for the five is scheduled for September 9 before a different judge in Norfolk.
All 11 Somali defendants have pleaded not guilty and are being held until trials later this year for additional charges, including attacking to plunder a vessel, acts of violence against people on a vessel, and assault with a dangerous weapon on U.S. officers and employees.
Somalia's neighbor, Kenya, had initially agreed to prosecute the suspected pirates. However, the U.S. took the men into custody after Kenya said its court systems were overburdened.
Somali pirates have hijacked dozens of ships over the last few years, taking in tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments from ship owners. Hijackings have continued this year despite patrols off Somalia's coast by warships from the United States, the European Union, NATO and China.
Somalia's central government, fighting an Islamist insurgency, lacks the power and resources to combat piracy.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.