Will the United States Play a Role in Prosecuting Pirate “Kingpins”?

Somalia has no trouble producing pirates. Between a central government that controls little beyond the capitol city of Mogadishu, an utter lack of economic opportunity for young men, and a 3,025 mile long coastline with access to the world’s busiest shipping corridors, for every Somali pirate captured at sea, there are many more waiting to take his place. Accordingly, one of the most promising means to put an end to this global menace is the prosecution and detention of the financiers of pirate action groups – those benefitting most from lawlessness in the Indian Ocean but never actually setting foot on a boat.

The Eastern District of Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals are in the process of hearing two separate cases that, taken together, could decide whether or not the United States of America will have any role in the prosecution of these so-called “kingpins” of piracy.

One case, United States v. Shibin, is just beginning the trial phase and is the United States first attempt to prosecute a high level facilitator of piracy. The case concerns Mohammad Saaili Shibin’s role in the hijackings of the M/V Marida Marguerite and the S/V Quest. In both attacks, Shibin’s role was that of translator and hostage negotiator. Shibin was paid between $30,000 and $50,000 for his role in the M/V Marida Marguerite attack but was paid nothing in for his role in the S/V Quest, as all hostages were killed before a ransom could be negotiated. Shibin confessed to his role in both hijackings to American authorities.

Mohammad Saaili Shibin – AP Photo

At issue is, inter alia, whether Shibin can be charged with Piracy under 18 U.S.C. § 1651, which outlaws “piracy as defined by the law of nations” and carries with it a mandatory life sentence.

Because Judge Robert G. Doumar denied the defendant’s motion to suppress his confessions, it will be difficult for Mr. Shibin to argue that he did not participate in the hijackings in the manner alleged. Instead, his case will rise and fall on the way the Fourth Circuit settles a split on the legal question of whether “piracy as defined by the law of nations” is an evolving or a static concept.

This legal question comes to the Fourth Circuit in the context of a split within the Eastern District of Virginia on two cases with essentially the same set of facts. In both United States v. Said and United States v. Hasan, the defendants set out to plunder a merchant vessel and fired upon what they believed to be such a vessel. In both cases, the would-be pirates were actually firing upon a United States Naval vessel.

In Said, the trial court held that § 1651 should be interpreted in light of the nineteenth century definition of piracy, which included only “robbery at sea.” Because the defendants in Said only fired upon a ship and never actually stole anything, their acts did not rise to the level of piracy.

The Hasan trial court, on the other hand, found that “the ‘law of nations’ connotes a changing body of law,” and that Congress meant to keep pace with those changes as they relate to maritime piracy when they drafted § 1651. The court went on to find that the contemporary definition of general piracy under customary international law is embodied in the High Seas Convention and UNCLOS,[1] both of which define piracy as:

(A) (1) any illegal act of violence or detention, or any act of depredation; (2) committed for private ends; (3) on the high seas or a place outside the jurisdiction of any state; (4) by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft; (5) and directed against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; or

(B) (1) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or an aircraft; (2) with knowledge of the facts making it a pirate ship; or

(C) (1) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating (2) an act described in subparagraph (A) or (B).

The cases of United States v. Shibin and United States v. Hasan are therefore inexorably tied to one another. If the Fourth Circuit overrules the Hasan trial court and holds that, for the purposes of § 1651, piracy only includes armed robbery at sea, none of the defendants in Hasan, Said, and Shibin are guilty of a crime under that statute. If it affirms the Hasan trial court’s holding that that the definition of piracy under the law of nations has expanded to include the definition embodied in UNCLOS and the High Seas Convention the result will almost certainly be the opposite. The defendants in Hasan and Said would be guilty of piracy resulting from acts of violence on the high seas, and Mohammad Saaili Shibin would be guilty of intentionally facilitating piracy. Though Shibin, as a translator and hostage negotiator, would be considered a mid-level pirate at best, the same legal reasoning that applies to him will apply to higher level facilitators who “incit[e] or . . . intentionally facilitat[e]” piracy but do not themselves commit robbery at sea.

An interpretation of § 1651 as embodying an evolving definition of piracy would make the United States an excellent venue to prosecute the financiers and facilitators of piracy, as the level of due process afforded to the defendants would be unassailable and the mandatory life sentence imposed by § 1651 would be a strong deterrent. Prosecuting these “kingpins” is, apart from solving Somalia’s broader governance problems, the surest way to put an end to maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. Hopefully the American judicial system can adapt to this modern realities of maritime piracy.


[1] Actually, this conceptualization of piracy was first announced in a 1932 study on the international law of piracy conducted by Harvard University and later incorporated into the Law of the Sea Treaty in 1958 and reproduced in UNCLOS in 1982.

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