, NEW YORK, Apr 22 – A teenaged pirate captured by US forces in a high-seas drama off Somalia was ordered to stand trial here as an adult on charges that could put him in jail for life.
Abdi Wali Abdi Khadir Muse, wearing a blue T-shirt and with head lowered as he entered the court with an interpreter, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge of piracy, prosecutors said.
Judge Andrew Peck ruled the young Somali would be tried as an adult after rejecting a claim by the defendant’s father that Muse was only 15 years old. Prosecutors said he was over 18.
"Mr Muse’s father’s testimony was not credible," said Peck. "The court ruled that the defendant must be treated as an adult."
The five charges filed against Muse were piracy "under the law of nations," conspiracy to seize a ship by force, conspiracy to take hostages, and discharging and brandishing a firearm in the course of a hostage-taking.
Muse could well spend the rest of his life unless acquitted. The piracy charge alone carries a mandatory life sentence, while three other charges carry maximum sentences of life.
Muse was allegedly one of four Somali pirates who boarded the US container ship Maersk Alabama on April 8, and later fled taking its American captain, Richard Phillips, as a hostage in a small life boat.
Muse, who prosecutors described as the group’s leader, was taken into custody April 12 after he boarded the USS Bainbridge to demand safe passage in return for Phillips’s release.
On the fifth day of the ordeal, US Navy snipers shot dead the other three pirates and rescued Phillips.
Flown to New York late Monday, a smiling Muse was led by federal agents past a bank of media cameras and into New York’s Federal Plaza in a driving rainstorm after his arrival.
His left hand was heavily bandaged with white gauze, the result of an injury sustained aboard the Maersk Alabama when a US crewmember stabbed him during a struggle for control of the freighter.
The Maersk Alabama saga captured the world’s attention and vividly highlighted the dangers posed by low-tech pirates in some of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes.
The incident was unusual because the unarmed, all-American crew fought back and prevented the pirates from taking control of their vessel.
"An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations. Pirates target ships and cargo, but threaten international commerce and human life," said prosecutor Lev Dassin in a statement.
"Today’s charges demonstrate our commitment to hold pirates accountable for their crimes."
An issue surrounding Muse’s capture and the unusual decision to try him in the US courts was his age.
Reports out of New York said he was 19. But Voice of America reported that his father, Abdilkadir Muse, said his son was 16 years old, and had not been in previous trouble.
A court-appointed lawyer Phil Weinstein told the court he had spoken to the alleged pirate’s father by telephone.
"He says his son was born on November 20, 1993," which would make him 15, Weinstein said.
The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama was an early test of the new administration of US President Barack Obama and has prompted calls for tightened measures to protect US ships in the busy shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa.
One US senator, Dianne Feinstein, on Monday called for US-flagged vessels operating in pirate-cruised waters off Somalia’s coast to carry armed security teams, and has written to Obama proposing the measure.
Muse’s court appearance comes as other Somali pirates on Tuesday released an Asian chemical tanker they captured five months ago.
But they are still holding at least 17 other ships as high-seas attacks in 2009 soared to record levels.
"Modern-day pirates bear little resemblance to the swashbuckling anti-heroes of popular fiction. The pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama were armed hijackers who robbed the ship, threatened the crew and held the captain hostage at gunpoint," said Joseph Demarest at the FBI.