NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - A Somali man was convicted of piracy on Friday for his role as a hostage negotiator in the hijacking of a German merchant vessel and U.S. yacht. The four Americans aboard the yacht were shot to death by pirates, and the crew on the other vessel was tortured to get a higher ransom.
Mohammad Saaili Shibin was convicted of the 15 charges he faced, including kidnapping, hostage-taking and weapons charges. He faces a mandatory life sentence.
"Today's verdict marks the conviction of the highest-ranking Somali pirate ever brought to the United States," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement. "He was among an elite fraternity of pirate negotiators - the vital link to any successful pirate attack. His skills were essential to obtain a ransom for those who attacked the vessel and the financiers who paid for the attack."
Prosecutors said Shibin received at least $30,000 for his role as a hostage negotiator aboard the Marida Marguerite, which was ransomed for $5 million in 2010 after nearly two dozen mostly Indian crew members were held captive for about eight months.
No payment was ever made for the U.S. sailing vessel Quest after it was hijacked in 2011. Shibin's role was to serve as the negotiator once the Americans were brought back to Somalia. But the plan fell through when the U.S. Navy started shadowing the yacht. The Navy agreed to let the pirates keep the sailboat, but said it wouldn't let them return to Somalia with the Americans.
The pirates gave the Navy Shibin's phone number because they said he was the only one authorized to negotiate.
Within days of boarding the yacht, a pirate fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the USS Sterett when it tried to maneuver between the Quest and the Somali coast. The Americans were then shot before Navy SEALs could scramble on board.
The yacht owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean despite a regular patrol of international warships.
U.S. authorities are hoping Shibin's conviction, as well as others in the case of the Quest, will send a message to pirates to stay away from American-flagged ships. Eleven other men have been sentenced to life in prison. Three others are awaiting trial on murder and other charges that, if convicted, could make them eligible for the death penalty.
"Mr. Shibin's actions resulted in the cold blooded execution of four Americans aboard their own yacht, a form of terrorism on the high seas," Janice K. Fedarcyk, assistant director-in-charge of the FBI's New York field office said in a statement.
Shibin's attorney expects to appeal. James Broccoletti contends the case should have been prosecuted in Somalia. He has said Shibin's case is unique from other pirates the U.S. has prosecuted because he was arrested in Somolia, not on the high seas.
Broccoletti said the definition of piracy may also play a part in an appeal after sentencing in August.
The definition has been in dispute because two other federal judges have issued different rulings. Doumar waited to rule on whether to dismiss the piracy charges until he heard all of the evidence in the case, ultimately deciding to allow the charges to go to the jury. That meant Broccoletti carried on his defense for more than a week without knowing what the judge would tell jurors.
At issue is whether piracy is defined solely as robbery at sea, as Broccoletti contends, or whether it involves a broader more contemporary definition that includes facilitating a pirate attack as prosecutors believe.
U.S. law refers to piracy only "as defined by the law of nations."
The 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals heard arguments on the definition of piracy in September but has not indicated when it might rule. Doumar's instructions to jurors mirrored the definition submitted by prosecutors.
"Piracy doesn't end when you take the ship," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph E. DePadilla told jurors Friday. "Piracy finishes when you get the ransom. That's the whole idea behind piracy."