A federal judge has refused to dismiss murder charges against three Somalis accused of pirating a yacht and killing four Americans on board, ruling the U.S. can prosecute the slayings because they happened in international waters outside Somalia's control.
By BROCK VERGAKIS
Monday, December 03, 2012
NORFOLK, Va. —A federal judge has refused to dismiss murder charges against three Somalis accused of pirating a yacht and killing four Americans on board, ruling the U.S. can prosecute the slayings because they happened in international waters outside Somalia's control.
The owners of the yacht, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were killed in 2011 about 40 miles off the coast of Somalia. A band of pirates had taken the Americans hostage in hopes of ransoming them for millions of dollars once they got back to Somalia. That plan fell through when the pirates were confronted by a U.S. Navy warship. The warship was trying to position itself between the yacht and the Somali coast when shots rang out aboard the yacht.
Defense attorneys for the three men charged in the killings contended Somalia's territorial waters extend 200 miles from shore, based on domestic legislation signed into law in 1972. They wrote in a court filing that any crimes that occur within that zone should be tried in Somalia and asked that the murder charges be dismissed.
While Somalia's law claiming a 200-mile territorial sea remains on the books, prosecutors noted Somalia signed an international treaty in 1982 agreeing to a 12-mile limit. That means the killings happened well outside Somalian waters, giving the U.S. authority to try the case.
"While some states registered declarations, reservations, or objections at the time of ratification, Somalia did not," prosecutors said in a court filing.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith denied the request for dismissal. Smith wrote that the 12-mile limit is part of customary international law, even if Somalia maintains its claims to a 200-mile territorial limit.
"In sum, although the defendants provide ample evidence that Somalia has claimed a 200-mile territorial sea, they fail to demonstrate that Somalia possesses exclusive territorial sovereignty 40 miles from its shore, where the alleged offenses occurred," she wrote.
"The argument that these offenses took place in Somalia's territorial sea must fail."
A jury trial for the men is scheduled to begin in June. If convicted, prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Twelve other men connected with the case have already pleaded guilty or been found guilty of piracy and sentenced to life in prison.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://twitter.com/BrockVergakis