U.S. Appeals Court Clarifies: Successful or Not, Attacking a Ship IS Piracy

The burned out hull of a suspected pirate skiff drifts near the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

A federal appeals court in Virginia ruled this week on the definition of piracy on the high seas, upholding the convictions and life sentences of five Somali men charged with piracy for their role in the 2010 attack on USS Nicholas and at the same time remanding a seperate but similar case where the piracy charge was dropped.

The five Somalis in the Nicholas attack were convicted on November 24, 2010 by a federal jury in Norfolk, VA on a number of counts including piracy, which is punishable by life in prison.  During the attack, the five men used a mothership to stage an attack and fire upon the USS Nicholas, which they unfortunately had mistaken for a merchant vessel, while west of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.  The USS Nicholas quickly apprehended the suspects, and sank their vessels for good measure.  The men were later sentenced to life in prison followed by a consecutive 80 years.  The case marked the first piracy conviction in the U.S. since 1819.

Attorney’s of the defendants challenged the convictions and life-plus-eighty-year sentences, appealing on several grounds including that their unsuccessful attempt to hijack the USS Nicholas did not amount to piracy offense.

During the appeal, attorney’s for the defendants argued that the crime of piracy has been narrowly defined as robbery at sea, i.e., seizing or otherwise robbing a vessel. The basis of the appeal was that because the men boarded the Nicholas only as captives and had not actually taken any property, the piracy charge should be overturned.

In a separate case, the Fourth Circuit also vacated the pre-trial ruling involving an alleged separate but similar attack on the USS Ashland by five other Somalia men where the piracy count was dismissed from the indictment.

In the case of the attack on USS Ashland, on April 10, 2010 the Somali men chased and fired upon the amphibious dock landing ship that they had somehow mistaken for a vulnerable merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden.  True to form, the USS Ashland apprehended the suspects and sank the pirate skiffs.

The Fourth Circuit remanded the case back to the District Court for further proceedings that will likely pursue the piracy charge.

“Today, the Fourth Circuit made clear that anyone who attempts an armed hijacking of another vessel on the high seas is a pirate under U.S. law,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil H. MacBride. “Since the earliest days of this country, piracy has been a serious crime. That is why Congress in 1819 chose a definition of piracy that would reflect advancements in the law of nations. For decades, the international community has considered violent attacks on the high seas as an act of piracy, and today’s ruling will strengthen our ability to hold those who attack U.S. vessels by force accountable, regardless of whether they are successful or not.”