Va. Piracy Conviction Spotlights Laws Of The Sea

A federal jury in Virginia has convicted Somali pirates in connection with an attack this year on the USS Nicholas. It's the first time in nearly 200 years that American prosecutors have convicted international pirates. The case is being closely followed for what it says about the law of the seas — and the rising piracy problem off the coast of Eastern Africa.

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For the first time in nearly 200 years, an American jury has convicted a group of international pirates. Five Somali men who attacked a Navy vessel now face mandatory life sentences in U.S. prisons. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the case has exposed some concerns about the law of the sea.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Last April Fool's Day in the Gulf of Aden, five Somali pirates were on the lookout for a merchant ship they could plunder. They spied a vessel and made their move, but the men picked the wrong target - the USS Nicholas, a warship filled with American sailors firing machine guns.

U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride says they never expected what happened next.

Mr. NEIL MACBRIDE (U.S. Attorney): Piracy is a very serious crime. It's one of the oldest laws on the books, dating back to the founding days of this country. Congress set a very severe penalty for it, and there's no doubt that piracy is a growing problem in that part of the world and others.

JOHNSON: The Navy scooped up the five alleged pirates, fed them, gave them clothes and cigarettes, and then sent them to Virginia, where they were convicted yesterday, after a nine-day trial.

Eugene Kontorovich studies international law and piracy and he says Congress might think about updating the law.

Mr. EUGENE KONTOROVICH: Currently, piracy carries with it a mandatory life sentence and that provides very little prosecutorial flexibility. And it's not clear that it's very much in line with the relative culpability, with the relative blameworthiness of these poor Somalis, to be throwing them in jail for life.

JOHNSON: The conditions in war torn Somalia have led many poor young men to turn to piracy, and sometimes they're forced into a life of crime by violent gangs. Defense attorneys for the men on trial say that's what happened to their clients. But the jury didn't buy it. U.S. Attorney MacBride says the problem is huge and getting worse.

Mr. MACBRIDE: To date, something like $150 million dollars in ransom has been secured by pirate gangs. Something like 24,000 ships off the horn of Africa have been pirated. As we speak, Somali gangs currently are holding 18 vessels and about 380 crewmembers for ransom.

JOHNSON: Defense attorneys are already talking about an appeal. They might want to use the same argument that worked with another Virginia judge in a nearly identical piracy case this year. The argument goes like this: Because the men never took control of the U.S. Navy vessel, they can't be considered pirates under the laws of the sea. Again, here's Kontorovich.

Mr. KONTOROVICH: And the question is whether attempted piracy, piracy that is not successful, is piracy under international law.

JOHNSON: He's got an answer.

Mr. KONTOROVICH: I think it's quite clear, both 200 years ago when this statute was first drafted, and today, attempts are part of piracy. But whenever you make international law the standard for deciding issues in American courts, there's going to be some uncertainty.

JOHNSON: Uncertainty that could be resolved by a federal appeals court sometime next year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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