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It's a bad time to be a pirate, at least in the American justice system. Of course, piracy on the high seas is one of the oldest crimes on the books, but U.S. authorities are using the 18th century law in new ways to go after people who may never actually set foot on a ship. Now, they're prosecuting those who represent the pirates as negotiators. NPR's Carrie Johnson explains.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One thousand pirates are in custody all over the world, and about 30 of them are right here in the U.S.

ANDREW SHAPIRO: When the Obama administration took office, the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia was spiraling out of control.

JOHNSON: That's Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state. He says American diplomats have been working with their counterparts to bring accused pirates to justice. Increasingly, they're aiming higher than the grunts who try to hijack merchant ships off the Somali coast.

SHAPIRO: We're also using all the tools of our disposal in order to disrupt pirate networks and their financial flows.

JOHNSON: Networks that include ransom negotiators. In two landmark cases, cell phone traces and other steps led U.S. investigators to Somali men who had the English language skills to serve as go-betweens.

One of them is Mohammad Shibin, heard here calling a representative from a German ship overtaken by pirates two years ago.

MOHAMMED SHIBIN: I am calling from Marida Marguerite ship.

RAJESH: Hello, hi, my name is Rajesh.

SHIBIN: I know your name, your name is Rajesh. I am the mediator between the hijackers and your crew, OK?

JOHNSON: Authorities arrested Shibin while he drank tea in an outdoor cafe in his home town in Somalia, stuffing him in an American plane and whisking him away to a federal court in Virginia to face trial.

U.S. attorney Neil MacBride calls him...

NEIL MACBRIDE: The highest ranking pirate ever brought to the U.S. for prosecution.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department accused Shibin of acting as a negotiator for pirates who tortured crew members for eight months, until the German ship owner paid a $5 million ransom.

Prosecutors also accused Shibin of trying to play the same role for a pirated yacht called the Quest. Four Americans were on board that yacht. Those hostages were shot dead before the ship reached land last year.

U.S. attorney MacBride.

MACBRIDE: Any time that four Americans are killed at sea execution-style by pirates, that's an extremely serious, extremely serious case.

JOHNSON: Shibin argued he was just trying to help resolve a touchy situation. But a jury didn't see it that way and convicted him earlier this year.

Shibin's lawyer, James Broccoletti, says there's something else the jury didn't see, witnesses from Somalia who might have helped his case.

JAMES BROCCOLETTI: None of the witnesses would come to Dijbouti to meet with me because they were afraid of the American government and afraid that they would be imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.

JOHNSON: Broccoletti says he got no help from the Somali mission of the United Nations either.

Shibin's preparing to appeal on the grounds he couldn't get due process or a fair trial so far from his home. That could be an uphill battle because piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction - meaning, captured pirates can be brought to trial anywhere. Even if they have no ties to the U.S., and no American people are involved. That's what's happening in the case of Ali Mohamed Ali. U.S. authorities took him into custody two years ago, when he flew through an airport in Virginia on his way to an educational conference. Ali's accused of boarding a Danish ship days after it was overtaken by pirates in 2008. Prosecutors say he acted as a go-between and they charged him with aiding and abetting piracy.

Professor Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University says that's a new take on piracy laws dating back to the 1700s.

EUGENE KONTOROVICH: This is quite different from attempt, where people are trying to actually commit the acts that classically constitute piracy. This is an entirely new theory that helping subsequent help to piracy, to pirates makes you a pirate.

JOHNSON: Kontorovich says he thinks U.S. prosecutors are stretching the law.

KONTOROVICH: It's far from clear that the person who happens to get on the phone with the insurance company to negotiate the ransom is a pirate kingpin as opposed to just the Somali they can find who speaks the best English.

JOHNSON: The hard-nosed strategies - including prosecution - may be working. A new report out this week says pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia dropped this year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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You hear Carrie Johnson's reports right here on your local public radio station. And you can also follow her throughout the day on Twitter. She's at Johnson_Carrie. And, of course, you can follow the people on this program as well. We're @ MORNING EDITION and @NPRinskeep.

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