RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A panel of federal judges on Friday upheld the criminal conviction of the highest-ranking pirate caught by the U.S. government.
The three judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in the case of Mohammad Saaili Shibin, who has been sentenced to 12 life terms for his pivotal role in two hijackings, which included the slaying of four Americans on their yacht off Somalia.
Shibin was a multilingual negotiator based in lawless Somalia. He worked his cellphone to negotiate multimillion-dollar ransoms for ships that dared to venture into pirate-infested international waters off Africa. He was captured in Somalia.
His attorneys argued that since his work was land-based, he could not be convicted of piracy.
The judges, however, wrote that piracy was not limited to acts on the high seas. The judges compared his involvement and culpability to any criminal action, on land or sea.
"For example, to be convicted of aiding and abetting a bank robbery, one need not be inside the bank," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote.
James O. Broccoletti, who argued the case before the appeals panel for Shibin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Shibin, who has been called the highest-ranking pirate captured by the U.S., conducted negotiations for pirates who seized the German merchant ship the Marida Marguerite in May 2010 and the yacht Quest in February 2011, both off Somalia.
Shibin negotiated a $5 million ransom from the merchant vessel's owners, after the ship had been looted and its crew tortured to extract a larger payoff. The four Americans onboard the Quest were killed by pirates when a U.S. Navy ship attempted to bar them from taking the Quest into Somali waters.
After his arrest, Shibin was taken to the U.S. for prosecution. A jury convicted him on 15 counts.
This week, three Somalis were convicted by a federal jury in Norfolk on murder, piracy and other charges stemming from the Quest's hijacking. All face potential death sentences at sentencing later this month.
Eleven other defendants who were aboard the Quest have already pleaded guilty to piracy and have been sentenced to life in prison.
The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were gunned down on the Quest.
U.S. law governing piracy, which dates back nearly two centuries, defines piracy as boarding a ship at sea and robbing it. Since the U.S. began its crackdown in 2010, courts have come to conflicting conclusions on how the law should be interpreted.
The government maintains the U.S. statute incorporates broader international law and recognizes that piracy is an organized crime. That means it includes those who work onshore, such as Shibin, to research how much ransom a pirated vessel can come up with and to negotiate a payment for release.
Shibin's attorneys also raised other issues, including jurisdictional questions involving his capture in Somalia. They argued that the U.S. lacks an extradition treaty with Somalia.
All of his other appeal claims were rejected.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.