NORFOLK, Virginia 2013 – Three Somalis go on trial Tuesday for the high-seas murder of four American citizens whose yacht was captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean off Oman in February 2011.
Federal prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty for Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar for the shooting deaths aboard the 58-foot (17.7-meter) sloop Quest.
Its owners Scott Adam, 70, and Jean Adam, 66, both retirees from Los Angeles, had set off from New Zealand to sail around the world. Their friends Bob Riggle, 67, and Phyllis Macay of Seattle joined them for the Indian Ocean leg.
They were the first Americans to be killed in a dramatic outbreak of Somali-based maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa that has since waned significantly as international naval forces stepped up patrols.
The trial in Norfolk, Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic port city that is home to the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet, starts with jury selection. It is expected to run for several weeks.
Nearly two dozen pirates have been convicted in US courts as part of a global legal crackdown, but Tuesday’s case is the first in which the death penalty is being sought.
Prosecutors alleged that Salad, Beyle and Abrar were among 19 Somali pirates operating from a commandeered Yemeni mother ship in the Indian Ocean on the lookout for a vessel to capture in return for a ransom.
The group had armed itself with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, boarding ladders and a high-speed skiff with which to pounce onto their intended target.
On February 18, 2011, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off the coast of Oman, they easily captured the Quest with the intention of taking it to Somalia and holding the American hostages for ransom.
But within two days US warships including the aircraft carrier Enterprise caught up with the yacht. Defense lawyers say Adam urged the navy by radio to keep back so as not to trigger a violent reaction from his captors.
Two of the pirates eventually boarded a US destroyer for face-to-face negotiations. When they turned down an offer to keep the Quest but surrender the Americans, the pair were detained on the ship, the defense team says.
The US navy then moved closer to the Quest, gunfire rang out, a pirate fired a rocket and navy SEAL commandos stormed the yacht, court papers say. Besides the four Americans, four of the pirates were killed.
War-shattered Somalia remains notorious for piracy despite a three-year low in reported incidents. So far this year, there have been only seven cases, including one hijacking, according to International Chamber of Commerce data.