A Somali teenager accused of holding hostage a US ship captain in the Indian Ocean after an attempted hijacking will be tried as an adult in New York on piracy charges, a US judge ruled on Tuesday.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the sole surviving accused pirate from the foiled bid to hijack huge US container ship the Maersk Alabama earlier this month, was put in custody until his next court appearance on May 21.
Muse, who prosecutors said “conducted himself as the leader of the pirates,” is charged with piracy, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, conspiracy to commit hostage taking and related firearms offenses. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard 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 US Navy snipers killed three pirates and captured Muse.
Muse appeared at a hearing in Manhattan federal court after being brought to New York by US authorities late on Monday.
“An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations,” Acting US Attorney Lev Dassin said in a statement. “Pirates target ships and cargo, but threaten international commerce and human life.”
Muse was first to board the ship, took the lead in issuing demands and said he had hijacked other ships, according to the complaint.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Deirdre von Dornum, one of Muse’s lawyers, said the legal team was investigating the possibility Muse may have been “kidnapped and taken hostage.”
She also said she was looking into whether the Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of war captives, applies in this case since Somalia is engaged in civil war.
Parts of the hearing were closed to the public due to questions about whether Muse was less than 18 years old.
Defence attorney Philip Weinstein said he spoke to Muse’s father in Somalia, who said his son is 15 years old but prosecutors said Muse told the FBI he was 18.
US Magistrate Judge Andrew Peck eventually ruled Muse is 18 years old.
Muse at one point cried out and appeared to wipe away a tear. When told by the judge he would be represented by lawyers free of charge, he said through a Somali translator, “I understand. I don’t have any money.”
Photographs of Muse arriving on Monday showed him smiling broadly, while local media reported he did not speak English and seemed unaware of the gravity of his situation.
Asked about that by reporters, Weinstein said, “He comes from a place with no electricity, no water” and has a “very limited education.”
“He is obviously scared, confused and is obviously troubled by what’s going on,” Weinstein said.
The teenager, wearing a dark blue prison jumpsuit over a red T-shirt, was not required to appear in court but von Dornum said she wanted him to “so that he would be able to understand what was happening and have some trust in us.”
He wore a large, white bandage over his left hand.
Heavily armed pirates from lawless Somalia have been striking vessels in busy Indian Ocean shipping lanes and in the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, taking hundreds of hostages and making off with millions of dollars in ransoms.
Professor of international law at Fordham Law School Thomas Lee said he believed this to be the first piracy charges brought in more than a century.