A man accused of negotiating on behalf of Somali pirates in the deadly hijacking of a U.S. yacht has been indicted on charges he negotiated the ransom for the release of a German tanker and its 22 crew members, the government said Thursday.
The accused, Mohammad Saali Shibin, is the biggest catch in the U.S. prosecution of pirates plaguing shipping lanes off the coast of Africa, U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said outside the federal courthouse in Norfolk.
"Mr. Shibin is thought by the United Nations to be one of just a handful of senior pirate negotiators who operate from within Somalia," MacBride said.
Shibin, a 50-year-old laid off oil worker, is multilingual and technologically savvy. Both skills are needed to assess the worth of a hijacked vessel and to negotiate with its owners or family members, MacBride said.
"Mr. Shibin is alleged to be among the select few who are entrusted with one of the most important tasks in Somali piracy _ ensuring a ship's owners pay the maximum amount of ransom possible for the release of a hijacked vessel," McBride said.
The indictment alleges Shibin received $30,000 to $50,000 for securing a ransom for the Marida Marguerite estimated in the millions. MacBride said the ransom paid for the German vessel capped a year in which authorities estimate pirates received $100 million in ransom payments.
Pirates used rocket-propelled grenades to hijack the Marida Marguerite off the coast of Africa in May 2010. The ship and its multinational crew were held for seven months until the ransom was negotiated.
All 22 crewmembers survived the ordeal. The pirates responsible for the hijacking have not been charged, MacBride said.
Shibin is accused of six new charges, including piracy and hostage taking. The superseding indictment, dated Wednesday, includes the Quest's charges for a total of 15 counts.
Shibin is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on the new charges. His attorney did not immediately respond to a telephone message left by The Associated Press.
Shibin has pleaded not guilty in the botched ransom negotiations for the Quest in February.
Owners Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle were killed several days after being taken hostage hundreds of miles south of Oman as the Navy attempted to negotiate their rescue.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years, despite the international flotilla of warships that patrols the area.
According to government court filings, Shibin's cell phone had auto-alerts to inform him of piracy activity. He also had researched the Adams, apparently to arrive at a ransom request, the filings state.
Eleven Quest defendants have entered guilty pleas and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Three others are accused of crimes that could be punishable by death if convicted, but the government has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
In all, 19 men boarded the Quest. Four of those men died on board in an exchange of fire with the Navy. One person was released by authorities because he is a juvenile.
The piracy charges mandatory life sentences.