The Somali ambassador to the United Nations said Wednesday that a man from his country charged with piracy should be tried in Somalia instead of the Virginia courtroom where he's being prosecuted.
Ambassador Elmi Ahmed Duale had been subpoenaed to testify at an evidentiary hearing in the case, but invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid attending. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview that there's a system in place in his country for trying pirates, and dozens have been imprisoned.
"Why should they bring him all the way here in the U.S. to face the court when the court is already there?" he said.
The evidentiary hearing scheduled for Thursday could determine whether charges against Mohammad Saaili Shibin are dismissed. Prosecutors say Shibin didn't board a hijacked yacht, but operated from land in Somalia to help determine how much ransom to seek for four Americans hostages who were later killed. Unlike other pirates caught at sea by the U.S., Shibin was captured on land in Somalia by the FBI. Prosecutors say he is the highest-ranking pirate they've ever charged.
Eleven other men have pleaded guilty in the case, while three others are facing murder charges.
The owners of the yacht called the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death in February several days after their boat was boarded by a band of pirates several hundred miles south of Oman.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Indian Ocean in recent years, despite an international flotilla of warships that patrol the area. Negotiations with the U.S. Navy were underway when shots were fired aboard the Quest.
Defense attorney James Broccoletti said the U.S. lacks the jurisdiction to prosecute Shibin and should drop the charges against him, which include piracy, hostage-taking, kidnapping and weapon charges. Shibin is also charged in connection with the hijacking of a German merchant vessel.
Broccoletti said he had hoped Duale would testify about Somalia's constitution, its judicial system and its efforts to prosecute pirates. One of Broccoletti's points of contention is that Shibin was never extradited, although prosecutors note the U.S. doesn't have an extradition treaty with Somalia.
Duale said he would have liked to attend Thursday's hearing, but that he's too busy to make it. He also said he didn't think he was the appropriate person to testify because his job involves Somali affairs at the United Nations, although he said would provide written statements if asked to do so by Broccoletti.
For their part, prosecutors contend in court documents that Shibin is merely trying to avoid prosecution and that the U.S. is the proper place to try him.
"Having made the choice to participate in an international crime in order to get a share of the massive ransom he negotiated, he may now be brought to justice by any member of the international community," prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Broccoletti responded by writing that the U.S. violated Somalia's sovereignty by plucking him from that country and flying him to the U.S. to be prosecuted without requesting permission from Somali authorities.
"The lack of treaty with Somalia is not permission given by the Somali government to the United States to enter its country and to seize its citizens for arrest, transport and prosecution. It is a statement to our government saying that they require the use of their own judicial system before they will condone the use of ours against their citizens," he wrote.
"There was no request for the removal of Shibin, a Somali citizen, made to the Somali government. This is a clear breach of international conduct."
While Broccoletti notes that Somalia has its own judicial system, he also argues in another filing that Somalia is in such a state of chaos that it is too dangerous for him to travel to and interview potential witnesses. He says that means he can't provide an adequate defense, which the law requires, and that all charges against Shibin should be dismissed for that reason.
Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis