Reporting from Washington —
A federal judge in Virginia threw out piracy charges against six Somali nationals Tuesday, saying prosecutors had failed to prove that an April attack on a Navy ship off Africa was piracy "as defined by the law of nations."
But U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson allowed the prosecution to go forward against the men on seven lesser charges. Convictions on the piracy allegations could have brought mandatory life sentences without parole.
Defense attorneys had argued that their clients were not guilty of piracy because they had made no attempt to rob or board the ship.
The judge agreed, ruling from Norfolk that "the government has failed to establish that any unauthorized acts of violence or aggression committed on the high seas constitutes piracy as defined by the law of nations."
"Following the government's assertions would subject defendants to an enormously broad standard under a novel construction of the statute that has never been applied under United States law, and would in fact be contrary to Supreme Court case law," Jackson added.
Mohamed Ali Said and five other men were taken into custody after the April 10 attack and brought to the United States for trial. They are suspected of being part of a large number of Somali insurgents who were harassing ships in the waters off southeast Africa.
According to evidence in the case, a skiff in the Gulf of Aden approached the amphibious dock landing ship Ashland about 5 a.m. As the skiff pulled even with the Navy ship, at least one person aboard the skiff opened fire with an AK-47-style assault rifle. The Ashland responded by returning fire, destroying the skiff and killing one of its passengers.
But, the judge noted, "at no time did defendants board or attempt to board the USS Ashland." Rather, Jackson said, the skiff caught fire and burned, and Navy sailors took the Somali nationals into custody.
Prosecutors in Norfolk said they were studying the judge's ruling to determine how to proceed. "We're reviewing the opinion and considering our options," said Deanna Warren in the U.S. attorney's office.
Also watching the ruling are attorneys for five other Somalis arrested in a similar attack on the guided-missile frigate Nicholas on April 1. That Navy frigate was not boarded by the Somalis either, though they are accused of firing on the Navy vessel. The defendants are asking a different judge to dismiss those piracy charges.