Piracy Definition in Dispute as U.S. Trial Looms

Byline: Associated Press/Brock Vergakis

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they’ve ever captured begins this month 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 a U.S. sailboat from Marina del Rey off the coast of Africa, in which all four passengers were shot and killed.

The owners of the yacht 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 said the men didn’t think they would get the amount of money they had sought from the exchange.

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.

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.

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. Regardless of the decision, Shibin still faces weapons, hostage-taking and kidnapping charges.

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