Published April 24, 2009
NEW YORK – The wound on Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse's slim hand, where he was stabbed by a crew member during his pirate attack on a U.S. cargo ship, has been redressed. He's been given painkillers and antibiotics for his injuries and a Koran to use in prayer.
The Somali pirate is being held alone in a cramped cell for two weeks as part of the typical entry procedure at the federal prison also housing Bernard Madoff.
But he essentially has no idea what's going on, his lawyer says, as he faces what's believed to be the first U.S. piracy prosecution in more than a century.
"Imagine yourself in Somalia," court-appointed attorney Philip Weinstein said Friday. "Imagine how overwhelmed you'd be by everything."
Weinstein and co-counsel Deirde von Dornum met with Muse at a courthouse Friday for the first time since a federal judge ruled Muse, whose age is disputed, could be tried as an adult with piracy, conspiracy and brandishing and firing a gun during a conspiracy in the boarding of the Maersk Alabama on April 8.
The Maersk's captain, Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was held captive five days until Navy sharpshooters killed three other pirates floating in a lifeboat with him.
The decision by the federal government to bring Muse to justice in the United States has thrust the skinny teenager into the international spotlight and has raised legal questions about whether the U.S. is going too far in trying to make an example of someone so young.
The most serious count against Muse carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Prosecutors portray Muse as the brazen ringleader of the pirates who shot at the ship's captain and bragged about prior marauding on the high seas. They say he gave wildly varying accounts of his age after his capture but is believed to be over 18. His parents, contacted in Somalia, say he's 15.
During court proceedings Tuesday, the 5-foot-2 Muse looked bewildered and so scrawny that his prison clothes were several sizes too big. He put his head in his hands and cried when his lawyers mentioned his family.
Weinstein and von Dornum are working now to simply establish a relationship with Muse, who doesn't understand the American legal system and knows only of a world where justice is dispensed with brutality and violence.
"We're at the beginning of the beginning," Weinstein said. "He's confused, overwhelmed. He doesn't quite appreciate fully what's going on."
The lawyers also are trying to get a Somali interpreter approved to work at the prison when they want to meet with Muse, who speaks only a few words of English. Until then they must meet with Muse at the courthouse.
Muse spends his days and nights in a 7 1/2-by-8-foot cinderblock cell with only a bunkbed, a sink and a toilet at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in lower Manhattan. The lockup houses a range of criminals, from Madoff to assorted murderers and mobsters.
Muse, who is Muslim, has been given a special diet. So far he's been eating lots of salads and vegetables.
"He was given cold cuts, and he wasn't quite sure what to do with them, but that's being worked out," Weinstein said. "The prison is trying."