WASHINGTON – A judge on Tuesday ordered the release of an alleged Somali pirate to home confinement while the government pursues an appeal that could delay his trial until next year.
The trial of Ali Mohamed Ali was scheduled to begin next week. But prosecutors said Tuesday they planned to appeal portions of a pretrial ruling by U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle that went against the government, likely delaying the case for months.
"Why should I keep him locked up for another year so you can litigate a principle?" she said to prosecutors. Huvelle agreed to have Ali stay under home confinement at a friend's house in nearby Centreville, Virginia, while his trial is pending. The friend said he knows Ali from "way back in Somalia."
Ali, 50, attended the hearing in an orange prison uniform, wearing glasses and sporting a shaved head, but he was not released at the end of the session. His lawyers said he probably would remain in jail for another 24 hours to see whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement picks him up. Huvelle said ICE should only be able to detain him if it plans to deport him, and ordered that the agency notify her and the parties in the case 24 hours before it tries to take him into custody.
Ali is accused of negotiating a ransom payment during a November 2008 pirate takeover of a Danish merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. He was indicted for conspiracy to commit piracy; piracy under the law of nations; conspiracy to commit hostage taking; and hostage taking. On July 13, Huvelle dismissed the conspiracy to commit piracy count, and ruled that for the other piracy count the government would have to prove that Ali "intentionally facilitated acts of piracy while he was on the high seas" -- and not in Somalia's territorial waters or somewhere else.
When the government said it would appeal that ruling, Huvelle said she'd dismiss both hostage-taking charges. The judge had indicated on Friday she might not do that after learning that Ali had been in international waters for only 24 to 28 minutes. At last week's hearing, the judge told prosecutors they had misled her about the case, and called their behavior inexcusable.
On Tuesday, she said there was no evidence that Ali engaged in violence, and said the government's case lacked a "smoking gun." She wondered aloud how Ali came to be "Public Enemy No. 1."
Prosecutor Brenda Johnson argued that Ali was a flight risk and that he should continue to be detained. She said that when he came to the U.S. last year he had two passports with two different birthdays listed. But Huvelle said she didn't consider Ali to be a flight risk. She ordered that he wear a monitoring bracelet and that he leave the house only to meet with his lawyer or to go to mosque once a week.