NORFOLK, Va. – A former Somali police officer and an electrician whose job it was to bless their expedition were sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for their roles in the hijacking of a yacht that left all four Americans on board dead.
Mohamud Hirs Issa Ali was the commander of a band of 19 pirates that hijacked the 58-foot Quest in February several hundred miles south of Oman. The pirates intended to bring the Americans back to Somalia where a bilingual interpreter would negotiate a ransom payment.
But the owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death several days after being taken hostage.
It was the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in the pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years. The Americans were killed after U.S. warships started shadowing the Quest and negotiations between the Navy and the pirates broke down.
At one point, Ali ordered a rocket-propelled grenade to be fired at an American ship, although prosecutors don't believe Ali ordered that the hostages be shot. Prosecutors have charged three other men with murder in the case.
"As Somali pirates expand their territory, they place more individuals' lives at risk," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a written statement following sentencing. "These men willingly joined this group of pirates out of greed, knowing full well that their actions could - and did - lead to the death of their hostages."
The Navy had agreed to let the pirates take the yacht back to Somalia in exchange for the hostages, but the pirates said they wouldn't get enough money for it. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars.
"The conspirators' refusal to release the hostages, even when offered the opportunity to proceed to Somalia with the Quest, displayed a callous regard for the hostages as merely shields to avoid capture and responsibility for their crimes," prosecutors wrote in a position paper on Ali's sentencing.
Jilian Abdiali said he had never been on a pirate expedition before he joined Ali and the other men. He was a former electrician who said he became a pirate after seeing that they had large homes and cars. He said in court documents that he never carried a weapon and that it was his job to use his psychic abilities to guide their boat.
He said through an interpreter that he's human and that he made a mistake, asking U.S. District Judge Mark Davis for leniency. Davis informed Abdiali that piracy carries a mandatory life sentence, but that he would request he be imprisoned near Minnesota where an uncle of his lives.
The judge also ordered Abdiali and the others who have been sentenced in the case to pay more than $400,000 in restitution, which includes damages to the Quest, legal and funeral fees, among other things.
Ali, who said he was a policeman for about a decade before turning to piracy in 2010 after losing his job, said through an interpreter he wanted to apologize to the victims' families, although no family members were present. He said he hoped that they would forgive him.
"I'd like to express my deep sorrow for the families and the victims for my actions. I am very, very sorry," he said.
Ali and Abdiali are among 11 men who have pleaded guilty to piracy in the case. They were the eighth and ninth persons sentenced to life in prison. Two others will be sentenced on Friday.