A judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website] on Tuesday dismissed piracy charges [order, PDF] against six Somali men accused of involvement in the April attack on the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden. During the attack on the Ashland, the defendants allegedly fired on the vessel but did not board or attempt to board the ship. The defendants were taken into custody by the crew of the Ashland after their boat caught fire. Lawyers for the defendants had argued that the charge of piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence, should be dismissed because the act of piracy cannot occur where the defendants did not board or take control of the vessel and where nothing of value was taken during the act. Government lawyers maintained that the historical definition of piracy included different types of conduct and should not be limited to the common law definition. The prosecution also argued that piracy does not require the actual taking of property and that an armed assault or direct violent attack on the high seas is enough to constitute piracy. In his dismissal of the charges Judge Raymond Jackson stated that the definition of piracy as defined by the law of nations under 18 USC § 1651 [text] does not include violence or aggression committed on the high seas. He rejected the government's argument for an expanded reading of the statute stating that the government's definition would, "subject defendants to an enormously broad standard under a novel construction of the statute that has never been applied under United States law, and would in fact be contrary to Supreme Court case law." The defendants still face six remaining charges including assault, conspiracy and weapons charges. The district court is expected to hear similar arguments [AP report] in September from lawyers for another group of five suspected Somali pirates who face similar charges in relation to the April attack on the USS Nicholas. Charges against the 11 men associated with the attacks on the Ashland and the Nicholas were filed in April [JURIST report].
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]. Somali officials have criticized [BBC report] the US for exercising jurisdiction over suspected pirates, 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].