Five Somali men convicted of attacking a Navy ship were sentenced to life in prison on Monday, the harshest sentences yet for accused pirates as the U.S. tries to halt piracy off Africa's coast.
The federal prosecution in Virginia relied upon rarely-used 19th century maritime laws and was the first piracy case to go to trial since the Civil War, when a New York jury deadlocked on charges against 13 Southern privateers. Last month, a Somali pirate who kidnapped and brutalized the captain of a U.S.-flagged merchant ship off the coast of Africa in 2009 was sentenced to more than 33 years in prison.
Before the Somalis were convicted late last year, the last U.S. conviction for piracy was in 1819 in Virginia and involved a Spanish vessel. U.S. piracy law was based on that case.
The five men also were sentenced to an additional 80 years in prison on other charges related to the attack on the USS Nicholas.
Several of the pirates told U.S. District Judge Mark Davis through an interpreter that they wanted to appeal their convictions and sentences while they maintained their innocence.
"I'm being judged on the basis of something I did not commit," said Gabul Abdullah Ali.
Defense lawyers had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship.
But federal prosecutors argued during trial that the five had confessed to attacking the ship on April 1 after mistaking it for a merchant ship. The Nicholas, a frigate based in Norfolk, was part of an international flotilla fighting piracy in the seas off Somalia.
Pirates are often motivated by the possibility of securing millions of dollars in ransom from the owners of merchant ships and the families of those they hold hostage.
"Today's sentences should send a clear message to those who attempt to engage in piracy: Armed attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels carry severe consequences in U.S. courts," said U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride.
The government said three of the men were in a skiff that opened fire on the Nicholas with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine guns. The other two men were found on a mother ship with weapons.
One of them, Abdi Mohammed Umar, said he didn't understand why he was being sentenced to prison.
"I did not kill anybody. I did not rob anybody. I didn't attack anybody," he said through an interpreter. "I'd like to be told the reason I am found guilty in this case."
Davis reminded Umar that a jury had heard the evidence and found him guilty of multiple charges.
The government is prosecuting a separate group of Somali defendants for an alleged April 10 attack on the USS Ashland, also off Africa. A judge in Norfolk dismissed the piracy charge, but the government is appealing. Oral arguments in that appeal are scheduled for March 25.
Davis said he would request that the five men be sent to a prison that already houses other Somalis.