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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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On High Seas and Off, Pirate Charges May Apply

(CN) - A Somali man who helped pirates negotiate hostage ransoms must face charges that he aided and abetted the pirates after the captured vessel left the high seas, a federal judge ruled.

Ali Mohamed Ali, a Somali national, helped negotiate the ransom of a Danish merchant vessel hijacked by members of his clan off the coast of Somalia and held hostage for 71 days.

He insists that he is not a pirate, but acted only as an interpreter, negotiating a $1.7 million ransom for the ship and its crew, $75,000 of which he kept for his efforts.

In 2011, he was lured to the United States by an email inviting him to attend an education conference in Raleigh, N.C. The invitation purportedly came from the then-director general of the ministry of education for the Republic of Somaliland, a self-proclaimed sovereign state within Somalia.

Ali was arrested as soon as he landed in Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and charged with aiding and abetting piracy, conspiracy to commit piracy, and hostage taking.

A federal judge initially limited the aiding and abetting charge to Ali's actions on the high seas, but the D.C. Circuit reversed, ruling that "it is self-defeating to prosecute those pirates desperate enough to do the dirty work but immunize the planners, organizers, and negotiators who remain ashore."

U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle found on remand Thursday that piracy is "an offense that can continue once pirates have left the high seas, such that a defendant may aid and abet piracy even if no high-seas conduct occurred during or after his allegedly facilitative actions."

Ali was only on the high seas for minutes before the Danish vessel entered Somali territorial waters, but piracy, as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, "is not necessarily completed the moment a perpetrator seizes another's ship, or ceases attacking or plundering," the judgment states.

The language of the convention compels the conclusion that piracy is a continuing offense that continues after the pirates leave the high seas.

"While high-seas conduct is what makes piracy a universal crime, high-seas conduct is not the pirates' 'ultimate illegal objective,'" Huvelle wrote. "Instead, much like kidnappers, pirates' 'ultimate illegal objective' is the use of 'illegal acts of violence or detention, or ... depredation ... for private ends.' Therefore, so long as the illegal acts of violence, detention, or depredation for private ends continue, the offense of piracy continues even after the perpetrators leave the high seas. And so long as the offense of piracy continues, a defendant can be convicted of aiding and abetting piracy even if he facilitates only non-high-seas acts of the principals."

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