NORFOLK, Virginia -- Five Somali men accused of attacking a U.S. Navy ship off Africa's coast were convicted on federal piracy charges Wednesday, in what experts said was the first trial of its kind in America in more than a century.
The verdict was handed down by a jury in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. The five men, who wore earphones, stood silently as the verdict was read to them by an interpreter. They face mandatory life terms at a sentencing hearing set for March 14 in Norfolk.
"They were just sad," David Bouchard, who defended one of the five men, Abdi Wali Dire, said of the men's reaction to the verdict.
Defense lawyers had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship.
But federal prosecutors argued during trial that the five had confessed to attacking the USS Nicholas on April 1 after mistaking it for a merchant ship. The Nicholas, based in Norfolk, was part of an international flotilla fighting piracy in the seas off Somalia.
John S. Davis, an assistant U.S. attorney, had argued that three of the men were in a skiff that opened fire on the Nicholas with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine guns.
Davis said all the men later confessed to the attack in a confession to an interpreter aboard the Nicholas. He said they expected to make anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 from the ransom.
Defense attorneys said it is not uncommon in virtually lawless Somalia for pirates to capture fishermen and essentially enslave them, forcing them to either do their bidding or be killed. They said that's what happened to their clients.
The attorneys argued that the men -- Dire, Gabul Abdullah Ali, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, Abdi Mohammed Umar and Mohammed Modin Hasan -- had actually hoped to be rescued.
They also questioned the validity of the confessions obtained by the Navy's interpreter. The confessions were not videotaped.
Lt. j.g. Chad Robert Hutchins was in charge of security aboard the Nicholas when it was attacked.
"Our justice system is great," he said after the verdict was read.
He described the mood on the ship that morning as one of fear. "People were scared," he said. "People were jumping under things."
Other countries have recently held piracy trials, but legal and maritime scholars say one of the last in the U.S. was in 1861 when 13 Southern privateers aboard the schooner Savannah were prosecuted in New York City. The jury deadlocked.