A U.S. federal appeals court made clear that the definition of piracy includes violent attempts to hijack a ship, even if unsuccessful, and upheld convictions against five Somali pirates.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld what federal prosecutors described as the first U.S. piracy convictions in 190 years, finding that an individual does not have to seize or rob a ship to commit piracy.
The court rejected a bid by five Somali men to overturn their convictions for attacking a U.S. Navy ship they mistook for a merchant vessel in 2010, Reuters reports.
In April 2010, a small gang of Somali pirates fired on the USS Nicholas, which was lit to disguise itself as a merchant ship while combat ting piracy off the coast of Africa.
Approaching on a skiff, the men fired AK-47s at the ship and launched rocket-propelled grenades into the air, but they never managed to board or seize the Navy frigate.
After a pursuit, naval forces captured the pirates and transported them back to the United States to face piracy and related charges. The men were found guilty and convicted to life in prison, the punishment for piracy, plus 80 years.
On appeal, the men argued that their actions did not meet the definition of piracy under the law. They pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1820 decision in United States v. Smith, which defined piracy as robbery at sea.
But a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit disagreed on Wednesday, citing two international treaties that define piracy to encompass acts of violence.
“The definition of piracy under the law of nations, at the time of the defendants’ attack on the USS Nicholas and continuing today, had for decades encompassed their violent conduct,” Judge Robert King wrote for the panel.
David Bouchard, a lawyer for the defendants, said his clients were prepared to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. He said the Supreme Court’s 1820 definition still applied, and that the United States has never ratified the Geneva Convention on the High Seas or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the 4th Circuit cited.
In a separate decision, the 4th Circuit also ruled in a different case stemming from an attack on the USS Ashland by five other men from Somalia. In that case, a judge had dismissed the piracy counts against those defendants, concluding that because the men had not taken control of the ship or committed robbery, their actions did not constitute piracy. The 4th Circuit reversed that ruling on Wednesday, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.
Geremy Kamens, a lawyer for the defendants in that case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
The Nicholas case before the 4th Circuit is USA v. Dire et al, No. 11-4310; the Ashland case is USA v. Said, No. 10-4970.