In the violent world of piracy, Mohammad Saaili Shibin was a
multilingual negotiator based in lawless Somalia, working his cellphone
to negotiate multimillion-dollar ransoms for merchant ships and sailors
that dared to venture into pirate-infested international waters off
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Does that make him guilty of piracy?
The question was the central argument Tuesday as a federal appeals
court debated with an attorney seeking to overturn Shibin’s piracy
conviction and a government prosecutor arguing against it.
three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected
to issue an opinion in several weeks or longer in a case that could
ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A federal judge
sentenced Shibin last August to a dozen life sentences for his role in
the hijacking of a German merchant vessel in 2010 that involved the
torture of crewmembers to secure a higher ransom and the shooting deaths
of four Americans aboard the yacht Quest in 2010.
Shibin has been
called the top U.S. catch since it joined an international effort to
combat piracy off Africa. That effort has brought nearly 20 bedraggled
pirates for prosecution to Norfolk, where ships based at the huge naval
base there have been deployed to combat the crimes.
Broccoletti argued his client couldn’t be convicted of piracy because he
never set out on the high seas, a requirement set out by U.S. law. “He
never left Somalia,” he told the judges.
Define the “line, where
does it cut off,” for someone to be considered a pirate? asked Judge
Paul V. Niemeyer. “I’m trying to find out what piracy is,” he said.
responded that the crime must occur in international waters. “He never
left the territorial water of Somalia,” he said.
governing piracy, which dates back nearly two centuries, defines piracy
as boarding a ship at sea and robbing it. Since the U.S. began its
crackdown in 2010, courts have come to conflicting conclusions on how
the law should be interpreted.
The government maintains the U.S.
statute incorporates broader international law and recognizes that
piracy is an organized crime. That means it includes those who work
onshore, such as Shibin, to research how much ransom a pirated vessel
can come up with and to negotiate a payment for release.
very difficult to get them,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Hatch told
the judges. “It was very difficult to get Mr. Shibin. But we got him.”
and Hatch, a lead prosecutor in the U.S. piracy convictions, each could
barely string two sentences together as Niemeyer, Judge Diana Gribbon
Motz and Judge Henry F. Floyd fired question after question at the two
attorneys. The questioning, though, didn’t signal which way they were
leaning on the appeal.
And it was occasionally light-hearted.
“These guys don’t dress like pirates, do they? Niemeyer asked.
“No, your honor, they do not,” Hatch said.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the three men charged with shooting the Americans on the Quest.
Eleven other men who boarded the yacht have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to life terms.
owners Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and friends Bob
Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle were the first Americans to be
killed in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
also was involved in the piracy of the Marida Marguerite, a
German-operated tanker carrying $10 million worth of fuel when it was
hijacked in early May 2010.
Investigators said the Somali pirates
tortured the 22 crewmembers “in indescribable ways” for hours at a time
before receiving several million dollars’ ransom and releasing the ship
on Dec. 27, 2010.