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Updated: February 15, 2011 01:48 IST

At issue is leniency of sentence for Somali pirate

Benjamin Weiser
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FACING CHARGES: In this 2009 file photograph, police and FBI agents escort “pirate suspect” Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (centre) into the FBI headquarters in New York. Photo: AP
FACING CHARGES: In this 2009 file photograph, police and FBI agents escort “pirate suspect” Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (centre) into the FBI headquarters in New York. Photo: AP

A Somali man who pleaded guilty to hijacking an American-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Africa is to be sentenced in Manhattan on February 16. His lawyers and the prosecutors disagree about whether he should be granted leniency because of his age and other factors.

The authorities have said that the defendant, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was the only survivor of four men who hijacked the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009; the three other men were killed during a daring operation by the Navy Seals in which the ship's captain was rescued.

Mr. Muse, whose age is in dispute, pleaded guilty last May to hijacking, hostage-taking, kidnapping, and conspiracy. As part of the plea, his lawyers and the government agreed that a reasonable sentence would be 27 years to 33 years and nine months. Prosecutors also agreed to drop a charge of piracy, which carried a mandatory life sentence.

‘Driven to piracy'

In arguing for a sentence at the lowest end of the range, Mr. Muse's lawyers said in recent court papers that he, like other young Somalis, had been driven into piracy by the abysmal conditions in his war-torn country. He grew up in desperate poverty and was almost always hungry, rummaging through garbage to find food, they said. It was while he was a young teenager, learning to be a fisherman, the lawyers said, that he became caught up in the piracy networks of his native Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia.

Mr. Muse's lawyers say that his birth records are non-existent, but that they determined, through interviews with his family, that he was about 16 at the time of the offence. They say he is now 17 or 18, and depict him as merely a hired hand in the operations.

“The temptations of piracy were overwhelming for Abduwali,” the lawyers wrote to Judge Loretta A. Preska of Federal District Court. “He had so little to lose.”

Prosecution reacts

But prosecutors in the United States attorney's office in Manhattan, in a memorandum to the judge last week, described Mr. Muse's crimes as “extraordinarily depraved and violent,” and asked for a sentence at the highest end of the range, of nearly 34 years.

Prosecutors said Mr. Muse had admitted to being over 18 at the time of the hijackings, and that during a five-week period in 2009, he led a gang of pirates in attacks on three ships in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Muse and his band fired machine guns at the ships, boarded them and held crew members at gunpoint, the prosecutors said. In the last of the three hijackings, of the Maersk Alabama, the captain, Richard Phillips, was held hostage in a lifeboat and repeatedly threatened, they said. During the five-week period, the government said, a total of 53 sailors were kidnapped, two of whom died of illness months after Mr. Muse's arrest, while still being held off the Somali coast.

Far from being “conscripted into service by hunger or any other duress,” the government said, Mr. Muse and his men “appeared to relish even their most depraved acts of physical and psychological violence and abandoned all pretence of human treatment of their captives.”

The prosecutors described Mr. Muse as “the undisputed leader,” saying he threatened to kill his captives and even aimed a gun at Captain Phillips, pulling the trigger, and laughing after it clicked but did not fire.

Mr. Muse's lawyers said they agreed that Captain Phillips had “conducted himself with great bravery,” but they said a sentence of 27 years would provide heavy punishment and send a strong message of deterrence.

In another dispute, the government contends that Mr. Muse made coded phone calls from jail after his arrest in which he relayed an order to kill a ship captain.

The defence argues that the calls, while pertaining to piracy matters, were misinterpreted by the government, and because of their timing, could not have involved such a threat. Rather, they said, the calls concerned payment of a debt Mr. Muse owed.— © New York Times News Service

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