US Indicts 14 in Piracy Killings Aboard Yacht

Fourteen men accused of seizing a yacht and killing its American crew last month in the Arabian Sea were indicted Thursday by a grand jury in Norfolk, Va., on piracy and kidnapping charges. If convicted of piracy, the men face a mandatory life sentence.

The 14 men–13 Somalis and one Yemeni–were captured by U.S. Navy Seals who stormed the 58-foot Quest four days after it was hijacked while sailing from India toward Oman. Navy officers were negotiating for the release of the American sailors, but the four were killed before the assault force could storm the ship.

The men were indicted on one count of piracy, one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. They were not charged with murder, but the indictment stated that “at least three of the defendants on board the Quest intentionally shot and killed” the U.S. citizens.

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U.S. Attorney Neil McBride said that the investigation will continue and that “additional future charges are possible.” He noted that the other charges include hefty sentences: Up to life in prison for kidnapping and a minimum of 30 years for the weapons charges.

The American sailors–Scott Adam, Jean Adam, Phyllis Macay, and Bob Riggle–were completing an around-the-world voyage, and just days before the pirate attack had separated from a group of fellow sailors to chart their own course toward Oman.

The alleged pirates appeared in court Thursday afternoon to hear the charges. A detention hearing will be held in about one week, and a trial could begin this summer.

The killings have highlighted the threat from pirates operating from Somalia and threatening an ever-widening swath of the Indian Ocean. There have been more than 90 pirate attacks worldwide this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with most of those coming off the coast of Somalia.

Last week, pirates unsuccessfully attacked a chemical tanker and a container ship, according to the IMB. In addition, the Maersk Alabama–the cargo ship famously attacked in April 2009 whose American captain was taken hostage and later rescued from a lifeboat by Navy Seal snipers–was attacked this week for the third time in two years.

The U.S. has proven willing to prosecute pirates when U.S. ships and sailors are involved and the cases are clear-cut.

However, battling pirates in courtrooms is tougher for the bulk of attacks in the Indian Ocean. Few countries in the region are willing and able to prosecute pirates. Western countries whose warships patrol the area, meanwhile, are loath to prosecute without an abundance of evidence–often hard to gather when pirates disguise themselves as fishermen. Numerous European and American warships have caught and released pirates for lack of evidence in recent years.

“It’s the problem of the dog catching the car: What do you do when you catch the pirates?” said Terrence McKnight, a retired U.S. admiral who set up the first anti-piracy task forces in the Indian Ocean in 2007.

To stem the rising number of attacks, Mr. McKnight proposes increasing aerial surveillance and naval patrols closer to the Somali region of Puntland, from where most pirate skiffs depart.

“We’re just waiting and reacting, instead of being proactive,” he said.

-By Keith Johnson, The Wall Street Journal