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Trial opens in Somali piracy case

Feb. 20, 2013 at 5:40 PM   |   Comments

NORFOLK, Va., Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A group of Somali men mistook a U.S. Navy ship for a commercial vessel when they opened fire on it, prosecutors argued in the opening of a Norfolk, Va., trial.

The trial of five Somalis began Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the men accused of firing on a 609-foot U.S. Navy amphibious dock landing ship Ashland from their skiff in the Gulf of Aden in 2010.

A sixth defendant, Jama Idle Ibrahim, pleaded guilty to attempting to plunder a vessel, and two lesser charges, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Another Somali man aboard the attack ship is cooperating with U.S. authorities, the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported Wednesday.

In 2010 a judge dismissed piracy charges against the group, saying they did not board the Ashland or attempt to steal anything and noting the U.S. Supreme Court in 1820 defined piracy as robbery at sea. In 2012 an appellate court overturned the ruling, saying any armed attack on a U.S. ship could be considered piracy.

In opening statements Wednesday, prosecutors said the defendant's goal was to hijack the ship and hold it for ransom, thinking it was a commercial vessel.

"They didn't mean to attack the U.S. Navy but that is what they did," said attorney Benjamin Lucas Hatch.

After a shot was fired by the Somalis, personnel aboard the Ashland opened fire on the skiff, killing one Somali man and injuring several more. The alleged pirates were rescued by the American sailors after the skiff caught fire, the newspaper said.

Defense attorneys acknowledged a shot was fired, but argued it was to get the sailors' attention.

"It's not unusual to fire a weapon to signal someone," said defense attorney Robert Rigney.

The defendants face mandatory life sentences if convicted.

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