NORFOLK, Va. – A judge sharply questioned the government Thursday about whether an alleged attack by six Somali nationals on a U.S. Navy ship was an act of piracy.
U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson said he would rule within weeks on a defense motion to dismiss the piracy charge, the most serious accusation in the government's case. A piracy conviction calls for a mandatory life term.
On a separate defense motion, Jackson refused to move the trial out of Norfolk, home to the world's largest naval base.
The six defendants, all wearing dark suit jackets over orange prison jumpsuits, are charged with plundering, weapons and other charges for the alleged April 10 attack on the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden. Five Somali nationals are being prosecuted separately, also in Norfolk, for an alleged assault on the frigate USS Nicholas on April 1, west of the Seychelles.
All 11 have pleaded not guilty and are being held until trials this fall.
The government is relying on a nearly two-centuries-old Supreme Court ruling and modern international laws governing the seas to press the piracy charge. Defense attorneys, however, have said the Ashland defendants did not meet the U.S. legal definition of piracy because they did not take command of and rob the Navy amphibious dock landing ship.
In an exchange with Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin L. Hatch, Jackson repeatedly pressed the government on what actions by the defendants would constitute piracy and under what laws — U.S. or international.
"Does firing a weapon constitute piracy?" Jackson asked.
"A violent act by one ship upon another ship is considered to be piracy on the high seas," Hatch responded at one point. He cited the 1820 Supreme Court ruling involving piracy and a litany of more contemporary international laws aimed at the "pressing security issue" of piracy off Africa's coast.
The six allegedly attacked the Ashland in a skiff, which was destroyed by 25mm fire from the Ashland. The men claimed they were ferrying refugees.
Outside of court, attorneys for the defendants said the judge appeared to warm to their contention that the men's actions did not amount to piracy.
"I would say he's receptive to our argument," said Keith Loren Kimball, representing Maxamad Cali Saciid.
"The crux of our motion to dismiss is that it was not piracy, which requires a robbery and some taking, and that clearly did not happen," Kimball said.
Another defense lawyer scoffed at the piracy charge.
"They're in an 18-foot skiff with at most one firearm and to attack a Navy vessel, it just doesn't make any sense," said Robert Rigney, representing Mohammed Abdi Jamah.
U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said outside the courthouse, "I think we had a full discussion of Congress's intent and judicial decisions construing the statute going back to 1820. The judge asked a lot of good questions."
He declined to speculate on the government's case if the piracy charges were tossed.
Jackson swiftly dismissed several other defense motions, including assault and firearms charges.
He also refused Rigney's bid to move the trial out of Norfolk because of the large presence of the military in the region, including Naval Station Norfolk. Both ships are based in Virginia.
Rigney said he has faith in a Norfolk jury but said the piracy case "hits a little bit close to home."
The judge, however, gave opposing attorneys additional challenges of jury prospects.
Lawyers for the Nicholas defendants have filed similar motions.