NORFOLK, Va. – A Yemeni man charged with piracy for his role in the hijacking of a yacht off the coast of Africa that resulted in the deaths of four Americans decided not take a plea deal Monday, with his attorney saying he was forced to join a band of Somali pirates against his will.
Mounir Ali was scheduled to plead guilty to piracy in federal court on Monday. But his attorney, Jim Theuer, told a federal judge Ali had changed his mind. Ali had previously pleaded not guilty.
"His decision today is a knowing and voluntary one," Theuer said.
If convicted, Ali faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Ten Somali men in the case decided to plead guilty to piracy in exchange for the possibility that they could serve less time than that and eventually be deported back to Somalia. They agreed to help prosecutors with this case and possibly others.
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 in February several days after being taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years, despite an international flotilla of warships that patrol the area. Four U.S. warships were shadowing the Quest and negotiations were underway when shots aboard the sailing vessel were fired.
Prosecutors don't believe Ali or any of the 10 men who have pleaded guilty shot the Americans.
They said that three surviving men who shot the Americans and already face piracy charges would likely face additional capital charges by the end of next week. By not pleading guilty, it is possible Ali could also face additional charges. He already faces weapons and conspiracy to commit kidnapping charges, in addition to piracy.
Each of the Somali men who pleaded guilty signed statements saying that Ali — who was previously a pirate hostage — willingly joined them when they hijacked the American yacht in exchange for a share of the profits they intended to make by ransoming the Americans. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars and the Somali pirates said they would split 65 percent of the profits with each other and a negotiator, while an unnamed financier would get 35 percent of the money.
But Theuer said Ali tells a different story: He said he was part of a group of 26 Yemenis on three ships who were taken hostage by Somalis in late 2010. Theuer said Ali was taken to Somalia and forced to work for pirates there.
He said he was part of the Somali crew when it hijacked another Yemeni boat, which it used as a mother ship to capture the Americans. He said Ali didn't believe he had a choice on whether to join the Somalis aboard the American yacht once they released the other four Yemeni hostages.
"He was not a willing and voluntary participant," Theuer said.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis