WASHINGTON – A Somali pirate captured following a hostage standoff in the Indian Ocean was in military custody Sunday and could face life in a U.S. prison.
Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life sentences under U.S. law.
Three pirates were killed Sunday in a military operation that rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage aboard a lifeboat for days. A fourth pirate was in discussions with naval authorities about Phillips' fate when the rescue took place.
"He's in military custody right now," FBI spokesman John Miller said. "That will change as this becomes more of a criminal issue than a military issue."
Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the disposition of the captured pirate had yet to be determined.
"We have multiple avenues," Gortney said at a Pentagon news conference conducted by telephone. "We could possibly bring him back here to the United States and try him since this was an American flag vessel. We could take him to Kenya, where the Justice Department wants to take him. We're waiting to find out."
Both Miller and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said no decisions have been made regarding charges against the lone surviving pirate.
"The Justice Department will be reviewing the evidence and other issues to determine whether to seek prosecution in the United States," Boyd said.
Phillips was taken hostage after his cargo ship was attacked by pirates. The crew thwarted the hijacking but the pirates fled with Phillips into a lifeboat.
Attorney General Eric Holder said this past week that the U.S. hasn't seen a case of piracy against an American ship in hundreds of years. U.S. prosecutors do have jurisdiction to bring charges when a crime is committed against a U.S. citizen or on a U.S. ship.
Officials said the pirate surrendered to U.S. forces. Details of the surrender were not immediately unclear but, under international law, the Navy has the right to hold pirates captured at sea and does not need to negotiate extradition with another country.
The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.
The FBI office in New York is running the investigation because it oversees cases involving U.S. citizens in Africa.
The U.S. is treating the matter as a criminal case because officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terror groups. Because the U.S. is not at war with Somalia, piracy cases are governed by U.S. and international law.
The FBI investigates crimes committed on the high seas but piracy is unusual. Assaults on cruise ships are the most common offenses investigated at sea.
"If there were ever a U.S. victim of one of these attacks or a U.S. shipping line that were a victim, our Justice Department has said that it would favorably consider prosecuting such apprehended pirates," Stephen Mull, the acting undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, told Congress last month.