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Life Sentences for Pirates Affirmed by 4th Circuit

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - Two Somali pirates who received multiple life sentences for their roles in the high seas hijacking and brutal murder of four American citizens cannot overturn their convictions, the 4th Circuit ruled.

Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar are among 14 pirates indicted for the early 2011 hijacking of the Quest, a 58-foot long vessel which was participating in an international yacht rally.

The attack was sponsored by Somali investors who provided the pirates with automatic firearms, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and an attack skiff, court documents say.

The pirates also commandeered a Yemeni fishing boat and the four captive Yemeni fishermen aboard to abet their mission, the indictment states.

After targeting the Quest, six pirates jumped on the attack boat including Abrar, who severed the ship's communication lines, and Beyle, who fired his AK-47 as a warning as they approached.

The rest of the pirates then boarded the Quest and set sail for Somalia with the intent to hold the Americans for ransom on land.

According to court documents, a U.S. Naval carrier strike group alerted to the attack attempted to intercept the Quest before it entered Somali territory. The pirates demanded to be allowed to dock in Somalia before negotiating with Naval officers, and negotiations carried on until the pirates were days away from reaching land.

"At one point during these exchanges, Abrar fired an AK-47 into the air above Scott Adam, as a warning to the Navy," U.S. Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said, writing for the three-judge panel. "The pirates variously threatened to kill the hostages and themselves."

According to court documents, one pirate threatened to "eat them like meat," and the pirates opened fire on Naval ships, narrowly missing the USS Sterett with a rocket-propelled grenade. The Navy said it did not return fire.

It was at this point that Beyele, Abrar and another pirate, Ahmed Muse Salad, also known as Afmalgo, gunned down their American hostages, court documents say.

Scott and Jean Adam were shot seven times, Phyllis Macay was shot eight times and Robert Riggle was shot 19 times. By the time Navy SEALs boarded the Quest, the Americans were dead. Four pirates were killed in the struggle before their co-conspirators finally surrendered.

Nine pirates pleaded guilty to piracy, and two leaders pleaded guilty to an additional charge of hostage-taking resulting in death; each pirate received at least one life sentence.

Afmagalo, Beyle and Abrar, whom had not entered guilty pleas, were convicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, piracy and possession of firearms. Though the government sought death penalty sentences against the three, they each received three concurrent life sentences, 18 back-to-back life sentences and 30 consecutive years imprisonment in a 28-day trial by jury.

Based on a 1972 national law extending the Somali territorial sea to 200 maritime miles, Beyle contended that the murders took place in Somali territory which did not constitute high seas territory and thus lack U.S. jurisdictional relevance.

In his appeal, Beyle cited the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea which alludes to an "'exclusive economic zone' beyond a nation's territorial sea but within two hundred nautical miles of the coastal baseline."

But Wilkinson found Beyle's "sweeping interpretation" unpersuasive, and determined that "almost all of the treaty's high-seas provisions apply with equal force inside the EEZ as they do outside it."

The panel also noted that "high seas" as defined by the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas are simply maritime areas which fall outside the boundaries of the territorial seas susceptible to state sovereignty.

As per UNCLOS policy, the United States recognizes that Somalia's territorial seas end 12 nautical miles from the coast, the ruling states. "The risks of an extension of the Somali territorial sea include as well emboldened gangs of pirates, increased 'investment' in piracy by Somalia-based financiers, and bridled NATO and multinational counter-piracy efforts."

Since the murders happened thirty to forty nautical miles from the Somali coast, the murders occurred on the high seas, and the district court was within its jurisdiction, the 4th Circuit affirmed the multiple life sentences.

Abrar claimed he was a victim of a kidnapping and was denied his right to present witnesses at trial to pursue his duress claims. As foreign nationals, the character witnesses which Abrar intended to bring - his former landlord, his brother-in-law, the four Yemeni captives aboard the Algasim and former employers - are not subject to subpoena under jurisdiction of U.S. district court, Wilkinson wrote.

According to the ruling, additional security threats in Somalia prevented investigators from procuring Abrar's witnesses. The court ruled that these claims were impeded by the practical inability to procure Abrar's witnesses through a service of process.

"A conviction does not become unconstitutional simply because the federal courts lack power to secure the appearance of a foreign national located outside the United States," Wilkinson wrote.

In light of the evidence against him: that Abrar carried the AK-47 and grenade launcher, that he was the first to board the Quest and the one to cut radio communication and held Jean Adam at gunpoint moments before her murder, "it is hard to imagine how testimony about Abrar's prior professional work could have been material to the determination of his guilt or punishment," Wilkinson concluded.

Abrar admitted to pointing a gun at Jean Adam before her death but denied ever shooting the victims. He also claims that as a Bantu, a minority ethnicity in Somalia, he would not have been eligible for any share of the ransom monies.

But court documents say a meticulous map of the pirates duties was found for the purpose of divvying up the loot among the pirates; Abrar was among those included in the pot, the four Yemeni captives were not. And though some pirates supported Abrar's discrimination claims for his Bantu ethnicity, most confirmed his participation in the attack during testimony.

Somali pirate attacks on commercial and private ships have been an increasingly alarming issue as noted by the United States Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan of 2014.

Wilkinson noted that according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, in 2011 alone, armed Somali pirates attacked an estimated 3,863 seafarers and took some 555 individuals hostage, 35 of which were killed.

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