Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Accused in Maersk Alabama incident accused of additional acts

Late this afternoon came news that Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the Somali involved with the attack on the Maersk Alabama last April, is now accused of having taken part of in two additional hijackings of vessels off the Horn of Africa's coast. The AP report says that federal prosecutors allege Muse was involved in boarding one vessel in March and another in April. The names of the vessels were not made public, however the allegations are that when the pirates boarded the first ship, Muse threatened to kill the crew with, "what appeared to be an improvised explosive device." After taking control, Muse and the others are alleged to have then used the vessel to successfully hijack the second ship, which is reported to still be in the hands of Somali pirates.

Though The New York Times post is headlined "NY Prosecutors File More Charges in Piracy Case", this appears to not be quite correct: As Crain's New York Business explains (via another AP report), while Muse is alleged to have participated in these earlier incidents, the indictment filed in Manhattan today does not actually add any additional charges to the original ones the Somali has already plead not guilty to. Instead, his alleged participation in these other incidents has been added to one of the ten counts Muse is currently facing, namely the charge of conspiracy to seize a ship by force.

There appear to be two reasons for today's actions on the part of US federal prosecutors: One is to establish that Muse had been involved in previous acts of piracy, establishing a pattern of criminal behavior that goes beyond just the Maersk Alabama incident. And the second reason seems to be in order to establish the suspect's age, as Muse is reported to have told one of the first two crews that he was 24 years-old. When Muse was first arraigned in New York last April, his defense lawyers said he was just 15 and should therefore be tried as a juvenile, while prosecutors said the man was at least 18.

Some might wonder why it is taking so long to begin Muse's actual court case, even though it's not uncommon for it to take years before a suspect finally stands before a judge and jury. In this particular case, today's news reveals that the investigators and prosecutors involved have clearly been doing a lot of work, the kind of diligent collaborative work that goes on quietly behind the scenes. Putting together all the elements to effectively prosecute a case of modern-day piracy in an American courthouse is, in itself, very difficult. Acquiring sufficient evidence for the same judicial system from other acts of suspected piracy that may have occurred out in the Indian Ocean is even harder.

But it's a sign that some people are keeping tabs on what's happening out there, in the hope that suspected pirates can be eventually brought to justice. And though it may sound boring, the acquisition of forensic evidence is a vital part of combating acts of maritime crime like piracy. The formal use of due process and transparency of legal actions are parts of what define nations seeking to deal with criminal activities wherever they may occur.

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