A group of suspected Somali pirates [JURIST news archive] pleaded not guilty Wednesday before the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website]. The defendants, six Somali men alleged to have been involved in the April attack on the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden, pleaded not guilty to charges of piracy and assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon. Attorneys for the men argue that they could not have committed piracy because they did not seize or plunder the ship [CP report]. The charge of piracy carries a mandatory life sentence if convicted. The trial is scheduled to begin in October [AP report]. Another group of suspected Somali pirates also pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in the district court. This group was indicted on similar charges in relation to the attack on the USS Nicholas, also in April. Their trial date was set for November. The 11 men were charged earlier this month [AP report] by a federal grand jury, adding on to charges filed in April [JURIST report], alleging that the suspects conspired to commit and did commit various offenses, including piracy and attack with the intent to plunder a vessel, noting that "the primary purpose of the conspiracy was to make money by means of piracy on the high seas."
Several suspected Somali pirates have faced charges in federal court this year. A Somali man charged with piracy pleaded guilty [JURIST report] in May to charges of hijacking, kidnapping and hostage taking related to an April 2009 attack on the US container ship Maersk Alabama [GlobalSecurity backgrounder]. Another group of nine pleaded not guilty to piracy charges [JURIST report] in May. Somali officials have criticized [BBC report] the US for exercising jurisdiction over Muse and other pirate suspects, insisting that piracy prosecutions should be conducted by an international tribunal. They have also asked that Somali pirate suspects be returned to Somalia, which lacks a functioning central government to address the piracy problem. Piracy remains an issue of international concern, as few countries have been willing to prosecute suspected pirates. The few that have attempted to do so include Kenya, Seychelles, the Netherlands, Mauritius, Yemen, Somalia and Spain [JURIST reports].