By: BROCK VERGAKIS
NORFOLK, Virginia (AP) The trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they've ever captured will begin this week under a cloud of uncertainty about the definition of piracy.
Mohammad Saaili Shibin is charged with piracy and several other charges for his role in the 2011 hijacking of an American yacht off the coast of Africa in which all four passengers were shot and killed. Jury selection in his case is scheduled to open Tuesday morning.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam, along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay, were the first U.S. citizens killed in pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean despite regular international patrols. Negotiations with the U.S. Navy were under way when shots were fired aboard the yacht. The Navy had agreed to let the pirates take the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but court documents say the men didn't think they would get the amount of money they had sought from the exchange. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars.
Unlike the 14 other people who were charged, Shibin never set foot on the boat. His attorney said that calls into question whether he can be considered a pirate.
At issue is whether piracy is legally defined as committing robbery at sea or whether there's a broader definition. U.S. law says piracy is defined by "the law of nations," and what that definition is, as well as who defines it, is at the heart of the dispute.
Prosecutors say Shibin acted as a land-based hostage negotiator who researched the victims online to determine what ransom to seek. He was arrested inside Somalia by the FBI after being turned over by Somali troops.
U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar has been seeking guidance from a federal appeals court on what the legal definition of piracy is in another case before deciding whether the piracy charges against Shibin should be dismissed. Federal judges in Norfolk have issued two different rulings in two separate cases involving attacks on U.S. Navy ships.
Regardless of the decision, Shibin still faces weapons, hostage-taking and kidnapping charges, among others.
Of the 14 others captured at sea by the U.S. military, 11 have been sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to piracy. The other three await trial on murder and other charges eligible for the death penalty.
Shibin is also charged with piracy in the 2010 hijacking of a German merchant vessel. Prosecutors say Shibin earned between $30,000 and $50,000 for his role in securing an estimated multimillion-dollar ransom for the ship's release.
If convicted of piracy in either hijacking, he faces a mandatory life sentence.
Shibin attorney James Broccoletti contends that because Shibin didn't board and rob the ships, he can't be convicted of piracy.
Through a spokesman, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride declined to comment Monday.