Double Jeopardy…Somali Pirates Charged a Second Time For Attacking U.S. Navy Warship

Remnants of a pirate skiff used in the attack on USS Ashland. U.S. Navy photo.

A group of alleged Somali pirates have been slapped with piracy charges for the second time in connection to an attack on a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Aden after previously losing in an appeal that challenged the definition of piracy on the high seas.

During the attack on April 10, 2010, the five Somali men chased and fired their weapons at the amphibious dock landing ship, USS Ashland, that they had somehow mistaken as a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

Needless to say, the attack was quickly “handled” by the heavily armed crew of the Ashland who then apprehended the suspects and sank their skiffs.  During trial however, lawyers for the defendants argued that since the pirates were never successful in boarding or robbing the Ashland, the piracy charge should be dismissed… and it was.

Prosectors on the other hand, thought different, and appealed the ruling in order to pursue the piracy charge.  As it turned out, a similar case was making its way through the federal appeals court in Virginia that involved yet another unsuccessful attack on a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Nicholas.  In that case, the pirates were charged which marked the first piracy conviction in the United States since 1819.  The pirates were sentenced to life in prison followed by a consecutive 80 years.

The ruling however, was appealed on the same grounds of the Ashland attack that the pirates never actually boarded the ship (except as captives), and the case went back to court.

Finally in May, and with both cases in mind, a federal grand jury ruled on the definition of piracy on the high seas to include any attack on a ship even if unsuccessful.  In doing so the court upheld the convictions and life sentences of the Somali men in the Nicholas attack while at the same time remanding the case involving the USS Ashland back to court.

This past Wednesday, the federal grand jury returned the indictment with the new charges against the men in the Ashland attack.

Officially, we’ll have to wait to see if the men are convicted and sentenced t0 mandatory life in prison, but on the other hand, it’s probably safe to say we already know how it will turn out.