A Somali teenager accused of holding a U.S. ship captain hostage in the Indian Ocean after an attempted hijacking pleaded not guilty on Thursday to 10 charges, including piracy and kidnapping.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the sole surviving accused pirate from the foiled bid to hijack the huge U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama, entered his plea at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Reuters reports.
The slightly built Muse, who prosecutors said acted as the leader of the pirates, appeared in court in a prison uniform and entered his plea in a quiet voice through an interpreter.
His lawyers told the court that he needed an operation for his hand that was injured during the attack, and had been granted little contact with his mother and family in Somalia since being held in U.S. custody.
Prosecutors and representatives for Muse disagree about his age. Outside the courthouse, lawyers said they were looking for witnesses in Somalia to prove Muse is a juvenile after a judge ruled in April he is aged 18 and would be tried as an adult.
The defense lawyers said they had difficulty communicating with Muse and he did not understand why he had been given medication. They said they could not reveal what the medication was for.
“It’s heart-wrenching. He is confused,” said one of his lawyers, Deirdre von Dornum.
She said Muse was just “a boy who fishes and now he has ended up in solitary confinement here so it is a truly terrifying situation.”
According to the indictment, Muse threatened the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, with a firearm and then, using a radio to communicate with U.S. representatives, “threatened to kill the captain unless his demands were satisfied.”
Phillips was held hostage on a lifeboat for several days after he volunteered to go with the pirates in exchange for the crew. He was rescued when U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates and captured Muse.
Muse also is charged with seizing a ship by force, possession of a machine gun and hostage taking. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. The next hearing was set for September 17.
Somali advocates in the United States say Muse is unfairly being made an example of to pirates around the world.
Idd Mohamed, the Somali deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told reporters Thursday he believed the US system was fair and transparent.