, NEW YORK, May 18 – A smiling Somali teenager pleaded guilty Tuesday in New York to seizing a US ship in the Indian Ocean last year, but could escape life in prison after prosecutors dropped a formal piracy charge.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse was captured by the US Navy amid a bloody operation on the high seas last year to free a US merchant captain that he and other assailants were holding hostage.
He was allegedly the ringleader of a pirate band that stormed the aid-carrying ship in one of a stream of brazen attacks plaguing the busy international waterway up the east coast of Africa to the Suez Canal.
Muse pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to seizing a ship by force and kidnapping, but prosecutors said they would no longer pursue him for piracy and other more serious charges triggering automatic life sentences.
He faces between 27 years and 33 years and nine months in prison, according to sentencing guidelines, his lawyer Phillip Weinstein said.
Weinstein called the sentence "reasonable."
Sentencing was set for October 19.
Muse, who smiled during his court appearance, allegedly led the raid on the Maersk Alabama, a US ship.
The assailants tried to flee in a lifeboat with the ship\’s captain, Richard Phillips, but were left stranded without a motor, presenting US forces with an unusual opportunity to confront the elusive pirates — but also an offshore hostage standoff.
A US naval ship, the USS Bainbridge, arrived at the scene and sharpshooters killed three of the pirates on the lifeboat, saving Phillips. Muse was arrested after boarding the Bainbridge in an apparent attempt to negotiate.
Prosecutors dropped charges of piracy and possession of a machine gun.
Piracy carries a mandatory life sentence, but while kidnapping and hostage-taking also can lead to a life sentence, it is not automatic.
Prosecutors celebrated what was a test case for a number of other piracy trials likely on US soil.
"Pirates who attack US ships overseas and take American hostages should know that they face stiff justice in an American courtroom," US Attorney Preet Bharara said.