MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge tearfully read victims letters on Wednesday before sentencing Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse to 405 months in a federal prison, the maximum penalty the law allowed, for leading the April 8, 2009, hijackings of the Maersk Alabama container ship in the Indian Ocean.
Muse was the sole survivor of the four-member Somali pirate crew that attacked a U.S. cargo ship and abducted its captain. Remarkably youthful and underweight in appearance, Muse, who is thought to be in his late teens, appeared contrite during the sentencing hearing.
He pleaded guilty in May two counts each of hijacking, kidnapping and hostage taking.
Prosecutors said Muse was the leader of the pirates and among the first to storm the Maersk Alabama after shooting at the container ship from their boat. Once Muse boarded the ship, a crew member lunged out of hiding to tackle and subdue him.
The rest of the pirates took the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, hostage for four days, after offering to leave the Maersk in exchange for a lifeboat and Muse, who was briefly held in the ship’s safe room with his hands bound by wire.
Prosecutors said Muse distributed $30,000 in cash taken from the Maersk to the other pirates on the lifeboat. The U.S. Navy took Muse into custody when Muse thought he was negotiating the release of the captain, as SEALs killed the other pirates and rescued Capt. Phillips.
“I am sorry very much about what happened to the victims who were in the ship,” said Muse, dressed in a green long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants at the sentencing hearing. “I ask for forgiveness to all the people who I harmed and to the U.S. government.”
Colin Wright, one of Muse’s victims, advocated for more than 700 merchant marines still in captivity off the coast of Somalia and blasted the ship’s captain for steering the crew into pirate-infested waters.
Wright, a third officer aboard the Maersk, said that Muse and his companions kept his shipmates locked in a 130 to 140 degree room near the equator, and they were barely able to walk when the were released.”
Muse’s prison term, which spans more than 33 years, ensures that when he is released from prison, he will be older than the average life expectancy of a Somali man, Muse’s federal defender Fiona Doherty said. She added that there will be “no chance” that his parents, still living in Somalia, will be alive when he gets out.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, moved to tears by the letters of the hijacking’s victims, said that she grounded her top-line sentence on the “extreme level of violence and sadism” that Muse showed aboard one of the ships.
“He relished in the suffering of his victims,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Robert McGuire said.
Although Muse was very thin, one of his victims said in an interview following the sentencing that he appeared to have “gained weight.”
Neither the federal judge nor the prosecutor was moved by Doherty’s remarks about Muse’s upbringing amid crushing poverty, drought, hunger and government-sanctioned criminality pervasive in Somalia.
Doherty said that birth records in Somalia were obliterated by years of civil war, and that Somalia has topped Foreign Policy’s failed states list for three years.
Dental treatment Muse received at the Manhattan Detention Center confirmed that Muse grew up with “severe” and “acute” malnutrition in Puntland, an autonomous region of Somalia, Doherty said. She added that seven of his teeth have been removed, and two more must be extracted.
Doherty said the dental work also corroborated Muse’s parents’ statements that their child is quite young: The defense contends that he was 16 years old when he led the hijacking, but the prosecutor said that Muse lied about his age and was prosecuted as an adult.
Muse gave the government “many ages” and “used his youthful appearance” to his advantage, McGuire said.
A defense sentencing memo said that Muse was abused by his father and left home for days after being tied to a tree and told he would be eaten by a lion.
Doherty argued that Muse was driven to piracy by his poverty. She referred to a study by Prof. Lee Cassanelli that argued that Puntland officials provided tacit sanctioning and encouragement for pirate networks in exchange for bribes.
McGuire, the prosecutor, played down the circumstances of Muse’s childhood and emphasized “his choices and his actions.”
Muse and his “gang” had the option to leave with tens of thousands of dollars from the ship’s safe, but he insisted on multimillion dollar ransoms, McGuire said.
Doherty countered that a Somali elder, who was a contact of the U.S. Navy, said that naval officers shot and killed Muse’s companions while they were trying to surrender.
McGuire strongly denied that, saying that Muse and his companions “forced the Navy to be heroes on that day, and heroes they were.”
Doherty also added that Muse tried to commit suicide multiple times in prison, and was diagnosed post traumatic stress disorder and depression while being held in isolation at Manhattan Detention Center.
McGuire said that Muse “repeatedly boasted that he was the leader,” and the government’s sentencing memo makes repeated reference to Muse laughing during interrogations.
“It will be his voice that [the victims] hear, and it will be his laugh that will haunt them,” McGuire said.
Although Muse led the operation, Doherty said to depict him as a ringleader “flies in the face” of how experts say modern piracy operates.
“I was recruited by individuals who were smarter than me,” Muse said, through a court translator.
Wright, the Maersk crew member who survived the hijacking, agreed with the federal prosecutor that the sailors were “defenseless,” provided no security and given only pocket knives to protect themselves against armed pirates.
He claims Capt. Richard Phillips put the crew in a “very bad situation” by ignoring three emails telling him to keep a 600-mile distance from the Somali coast. At least one Maersk crew member has sued the ship and Waterman Steamship for risking the lives of their employees.
Judge Preska’s voice cracked several times while reading letters from the victims. One letter said that piracy is nothing like its Disney depictions.
Heather Cronan, a wife of a third captain, wrote to Muse: “The unimaginable struggles of Somalia are not my fault.”
John Cronan’s letter pointed out that the ship was delivering food aid.
Preska’s wavered as she read Cronan’s statement.
“I held my daughter’s picture in the dark, praying I’d have the opportunity to tell [my children] I love them one last time,” Cronan wrote.
Judge Preska said that Muse called Capt. Phillips “stick-mouth” because Muse gagged him with a stick after the captain tried to chew through his constraints.
Muse and his companions also held a mock execution for Capt. Phillips, Preska said.
In addition to his 405-month sentence, Preska imposed five years of supervised release and $550,000 in restitution.
“For five days that must have seemed like an eternity to his victims, Abduwali Abukhadir Muse terrorized the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “Now he will pay for those five days and the events leading up to them. Today’s sentence makes it clear that piracy on the high seas is a crime against the international community that will not be tolerated.”
Before imposing her sentence, Preska said that the most recent report noted 111 incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, about a 200 percent increase from the previous year.