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Life Sentences for Somali Pirates in Foiled Attack

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - Decades in prison are not enough to punish the five Somali pirates behind an unsuccessful U.S. Navy ship attack, the Fourth Circuit ruled.

Mohamed Said, Mohamed Jama, Abdicasiis Cabaase, Abdi Osman and Mohamed Farah were tried and convicted of piracy after they launched an attack on the USS Ashland in April 2010, having mistaken the military vessel for a merchant ship.

Machine gunfire from the Navy warship started a fire on the skiff that killed the engineer, left most of the pirates with burns and cost Farah a leg.

The ruling notes that months earlier a British Royal Navy ship had foiled an attempt by some of the same pirates in the April attack as they tried to seize a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden.

Though federal statute mandated life sentences for the pirates, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk found such punishment cruel and unusual.

He instead handed down sentences ranging from 32 years to 42 ½ years.

A three-judge panel with the Fourth Circuit affirmed the pirates' convictions Thursday but called for the statutorily prescribed life sentences on remand.

"Victims of piracy are robbed of their vessels, kidnapped, held hostage, and even tortured and murdered, while pirates are often able to find safe refuge in the territorial waters off Somalia and collect multimillion-dollar ransom payments," Judge Robert King wrote for the court. "In these circumstances, we agree with the government 'that Congress could with reason conclude [that piracy] calls for the strong medicine of a life sentence for those who are apprehended.'"

Jackson, the trial judge, had based his sentencing on the finding that life sentences were unconstitutional in this case because the pirates' attack did not hurt anyone onboard the Ashland.

The Fourth Circuit scoffed Thursday, however, at Jackson's finding that the matter involved "one of the most passive felonies a person could commit," in that the offense "involved neither violence nor threat of violence to any person."

Indeed, the defendants' piracy offenses here "included committing illegal acts of violence for private ends (Cabaase), operating a pirate ship (Farah), and otherwise facilitating the violent acts (Said, Jama, and Osman)," the ruling states.

"When the defendants engaged in that conduct, their piracy offenses were complete," King wrote. "Those offenses were hardly 'passive;' rather, they involved 'violence []or threat[s] of violence to [m]any person[s].' ... It is of no moment that no one aboard the USS Ashland was harmed before the defendants' attack was thwarted."

A footnote to the decision notes that "Congress clearly meant to attach the mandatory life sentence to piracy."

Tara Helfman, an associate professor of law at Syracuse University, said Jackson had relied on a definition of piracy that required an actual robbery to occur, but omitted broader terms that include illegal acts of violence, according to a 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"The Fourth Circuit righted the ship by establishing the appropriate legal standard for the trial court to apply," Helfmand added.

As part of a multinational effort to curtail piracy off the Horn of Africa, a thoroughfare much of the world's global trade, U.S. courts have, in recent years, convicted and sentenced scores of Somalis for piracy.

"In that particular part of the world, people are so desperate that they're willing to take extreme risks," Helfman said. "But the thing about international law is that it doesn't address one tiny corner of the world. It addresses the entire world, globally."

As piracy continues to rise, the efficacy of punishments for piracy, including life sentencing being meted out by U.S. courts, could be tested, Helfman added.

Federal public defender Geremy Kamen did not return a request for comment.

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