Negotiator Sentenced to Multiple Life Terms – SCOTUS on the horizon
August 15, 2012 Leave a comment
As we previously discussed here and here, Mohammad Saaili Shibin has been convicted for his role as a pirate negotiator in two separate incidents. During the trial, there was evidence that the hostages were tortured, but Shibin’s main role was to negotiate a ransom payment. Shibin has now been sentenced to 12 life terms and his attorney has promised to appeal. Two issues could lead to overturning Shibin’s convictions and might soon reach the Supreme Court.
First, Shibin’s attorney has stated that piracy can only occur if someone commits robbery at sea. In other words, the issue is whether piracy under the 18 USC 1651 (which incorporates the law of nations) is an evolving or a static concept. If it is a static concept, then a robbery was necessary to complete the offence. Since Shibin never boarded the hijacked yacht, he did not commit a robbery and his conviction for piracy, the basis for the life terms, could not stand. If, however, piracy is an evolving concept, then the UNCLOS definition would prevail and, because it does not require a robbery, Shibin’s conviction would stand.
Shibin’s appeal will first be heard by a 3-judge panel of the 4th Circuit. Another panel of the same court has ruled, in U.S. v. Abdi Wali Dire, that piracy is an evolving concept. A petition for rehearing was subsequently denied in that case, and the defence is filing an appeal with the US Supreme Court. Shibin could appeal the same issue to the 4th Circuit and might win if a different panel hears the case. However, if his appeal is denied, which is likely, he will have to take the case to the US Supreme Court as well.
The second issue that might result in overturning his convictions is whether Shibin’s actions in Somali territory can constitute piracy under the law of nations. The Federal Court in the DC Circuit recently held, in U.S. v. Ali, that the international crime of piracy can only be committed on the high seas. Therefore, negotiating a ransom for pirated hostages on land or within a state’s territorial waters does not constitute piracy. There is a healthy debate as to the correctness of this decision. See here and here. Nonetheless, it appears that Shibin only boarded the pirated vessel in Somali territorial waters. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting Shibin said that Shibin was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters.Therefore, if the Ali-rationale were applied in Shibin’s appeal, his convictions would be overturned. Even though Shibin did not appear to make this particular argument at trial, if it is determined that piracy under the law of nations does not include actions from Somali territory, universal jurisdiction would not permit the U.S. to pursue this prosecution. Therefore, this is a jurisdictional issue that can be raised for the first time on appeal.
There you have it: two issues that could invalidate Shibin’s convictions. Either or both of these issues could reach the Supreme Court, perhaps not in Shibin’s case, but possibly in U.S. v. Dire. The justices may be inclined to grant certiorari as a rhetorical counterpoint to Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell which is on the court’s docket for the next term and will require the court to interpret the statutory language “the law of nations” as part of the Alien Tort Statute. The piracy cases might be helpful to those who would argue that universal jurisdiction only applies to those offenses originally contemplated and discussed by the First Congress (when the piracy law and the Alien Tort Statute were passed). According to this view, piracy would satisfy the requirement, but relatively newer crimes such as crimes against humanity would not.