Round Two for the Ashland Defendants

The trial of the remaining five pirates accused of mistaking the U.S. Navy amphibious dock landing ship Ashland for a commercial tanker and attacking it in 2010 has restarted. Initially, the trial court dismissed the charges against the defendants under the 1820 case of United States v. Smith — defining piracy as “robbery at sea” — because the defendants never boarded the ship or attempted to steal anything. However, after the 4th Circuit endorsed the UNCLOS definition of piracy in United States v. Dire, the Ashland defendants are back in court.

USS Ashland

USS Ashland entering port in Florida (U.S. Navy photo by Scott Lehr)

Here is what the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot had to say about the case:

Prosecutors argue the men were pirates who mistook the amphibious dock landing ship for a commercial vessel.

Defense attorneys, however, claim they were merely lost at sea and trying to get the ship’s attention.

A jury trial for five of the men started Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. Over the next week, prosecutors are expected to call to the stand sailors who were on the Virginia Beach-based Ashland at the time of the incident and a Somali man who was on the skiff and is now cooperating with authorities.

Jama Idle Ibrahim, also known as Jaamac Ciidle, pleaded guilty in August 2010 to attempting to plunder a vessel and two related charges. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison but could have his sentence reduced.

Due to the similarities between the case of the USS Ashland and that involving the USS Nicholas (which culminated in the Dire opinion), the defendants’ overall prospects do not look strong.

Shibin files appellate brief

On December 13, Mohammad Shibin filed an Appellate Brief with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Shibin was charged with eight crimes, comprising fifteen separate counts, for his alleged role as a hostage negotiator in the hijackings of the Marida Marguerite, a German merchant vessel manned by foreign nationals, and the S/V Quest, an American sailing vessel with Americans on board. At trial, Shibin was convicted of all fifteen counts and sentenced to multiple life sentences plus 120 months in prison.

This post will offer a brief summary of the defendant’s arguments followed by even briefer commentary concerning the plausibility of those arguments. On balance, Shibin may have earned himself a retrial on a couple of issues, but he is highly unlikely to escape punishment altogether.

Mohammad Shibin shortly after his arrest.

Shibin’s first argument on appeal is that the two counts of piracy under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1651 and 2 should be dismissed because, “[i]n what could be characterized as almost indifference to this essential requirement, the government failed to present any evidence that Shibin had at any point committed any act upon the high seas whatsoever” (emphasis in original). In support of this argument, Shibin advances the plain language of § 1651, the legislative history of §§ 1651 and 2, prior lower court opinions on the issue, and customary international law as found in the Harvard Draft Convention and the Geneva Convention on the High Seas. These sources, according to the defendant, all suggest that universal jurisdiction over piracy only exists for those acts committed on the high seas or outside the territorial jurisdiction of any state, and that § 1651 only purpose is to criminalize those extraterritorial acts.

I have written a great deal about this argument in the past, and rather than re-hash it all here, I’ll direct readers to this EJIL Talk post and to other on CHO. I will add, however, that I agree that using § 2 to provide for universal jurisdiction over facilitators who act from with a single nation’s territory is impermissible under the Charming Betsy Canon. Ultimately, though, this is an issue that has yet to be fully litigated, so it is anyone’s guess how it will come out in the end.

Second, Shibin advances the ambitious argument that all counts should be dismissed because Shibin was improperly brought before the U.S. courts. Shibin rightly notes that a pair of Supreme Court cases, Frisbie v. Collins and Ker v. Illinois, stand for the proposition that “the power of the court to try a person for a crime is not impaired by the fact that he has been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a forcible abduction.” The Ker-Frisbee doctrine has been endorsed in the face of extradition treaties that were was silent on the propriety of forcible abductions in, inter alia, U.S. v. Alvarez Machainand Kasi v. Angelone. Shibin seeks to distinguish his case by noting that the United States and Somalia do not have an extradition treaty. The lack of such a formalized agreement, according to the defendant, signals the Somali government’s unwillingness to allow foreign officials’ access to their citizens.

This argument seems likely to fail with respect to the Marida Marguerite and will almost certainly fail regarding the Quest. In Alvarez Machain, the Court essentially held that silence as to the propriety of forcible transfers renders American courts unwilling to look into the legality of such transfers. This logic seems to suggest that U.S. courts view the right not to be forcibly brought before a U.S. court as a right that a foreign government must affirmatively assert on behalf of its citizens. Somalia’s silence on the matter is therefore likely to be interpreted in a similar fashion, whether or not that silence comes in the context of an extradition treaty.

The third argument advanced by the defendant is that all of the non-piracy offenses charged in connection to the Marida Marguerite should be dismissed because they are not crimes of universal jurisdiction. These counts include hostage taking and conspiracy to commit hostage, conspiracy to commit violence against maritime navigation and committing violence against maritime navigation, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and kidnapping. Shibin finds support for this argument in U.S. v. Yousef, 327 F.3d 56 at 104 (holding that universal jurisdiction crimes cannot be created judicially, by analogy, or through references to aspirational treaties or scholarly works).

However, this argument ignores the same Charming Betsy Canon upon which the defendant relies in support of his piracy charges. The Charming Betsy Canon states that statutes should not be construed as to violate the law of nations unless Congress manifests its intent to do so. However, 18 U.S.C. § 1203 (hostage taking), 18 U.S.C. § 2280 (violence against maritime navigation), and 18 U.S.C. § 1201 (kidnapping) all contain “found in” or “brought before” provisions stating that the United States shall have jurisdiction over those individuals who are later found in the United States or brought before a U.S. court. Thus Congress provides for some form of qualified universal jurisdiction over hostage taking, violence against maritime navigation, and kidnapping that arguably violates international law. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of precedent stating that courts will uphold such statutes if Congress’ intent is clear. It must be said, tough, that none of this precedent concerns a defendant with no traditional connection to the United States whatsoever, as is the case with Shibin’s charges stemming from the Marida Margueritte.

Finally, Shibin challenges the testimony of an FBI agent concerning a translated interview between that agent and Muhamud Salad Ali, one of the individuals who captured the Quest. Shibin argues that the facts surrounding the translation are such that the translator created an additional level of hearsay, and the translator’s absence from trial constitutes a violation of the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Confrontation Clause. In support of his argument, Shibin relies on a four-part test announced in the Fifth Circuit in U.S. v. Martinez-Gaytanand adopted by the Fourth Circuit in U.S. v. Vidacak. At issue in these cases was whether the translator should be considered an out of court declarant or a mere conduit of the in court witness. The four factors to be considered are: 1) which party supplied the translator; 2) whether the translator had a motive to fabricate; 3) the translator’s qualifications and skills, and; 4) whether actions taken subsequent to the translation were consistent with the statement translated.

According to Shibin, three of the four factors mitigate in favor of requiring the translator’s presence in court for examination. First, the FBI agent in question described the translator as “an FBI Somali linguist,” suggesting that the government supplied the translator. The second factor – potential motive to fabricate – is neutral, as there is no evidence suggesting bias. Third, there is no basis to determine the translator’s skill, as nobody but the prosecution had access to him or her. Finally, Mr. Salad Ali’s testimony in court directly contradicted that which came out of the earlier translated interview. On balance, Shibin argues, the nature of this particular translation created an additional layer of hearsay that can only be remedied through a re-trial of which the Somali translator would need to be a part.

This argument seems plausible on its face, assuming the facts and the law are as the defense brief says they are. Without more research or access to the government’s yet-to-be-filed brief, it is impossible to predict the outcome of this particular argument. I will note, however, that Shibin makes a Confrontation Clause argument that he says should stand regardless of the outcome of the hearsay argument. It seems to me, however, that the hearsay argument and Confrontation Clause argument will rise or fall together. If the translator is deemed a mere conduit of Mr. Salad Ali, the latter of whom was available for confrontation, it would be difficult to argue that the translator’s translation was testimonial.

Putting political convenience aside, pirates are rarely also terrorists

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled, Putting political convenience aside, pirates are simply not terrorists.  The piece argues that calls to treat all pirates as terrorists are totally unfounded, at least from a legal perspective. This is because, under international law, terrorism and piracy are accompanied by explicitly-defined, mutually exclusive motives.

Although I am standing by my substantive argument, the story of the MV Asphalt Venture is enough – as more astute readers may have noticed – to make me recalibrate my title a bit.

The Asphalt Venture is a Panamanian-flagged, Korean-owned vessel that was captured by pirates on September 28, 2010. On April 15, 2011, the pirates released eight of the Asphalt Venture’s fifteen crew members in exchange for a ransom payment, but the kept the remaining seven crew on board. Subsequently, the pirates issued a demand to the Indian government, particularly to the coastal state of Kerala, that the remaining hostages would not be released until India freed around 100 Somalis convicted of piracy and serving their sentences in India. Recently, the Asphalt Venture pirates have added a $5 million ransom to their list of demands of the Indian government. Old title notwithstanding, these pirates indeed became terrorists.

MV Asphalt Venture

As I explained in my earlier post, terrorism is characterized by a desire to either incite fear among the general public or to otherwise coerce a government. Conversely, piracy must be committed with the hopes of making money. Thus, where an individual takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of a ransom from a private entity, he is a pirate. Where he takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of shaping the behavior of a government, he is a terrorist.

Those who took the Asphalt Venture managed to be both. From September 28, 2010 to April 15, 2011, they were merely pirates, only interested in money moving from one private party to another. But the moment that the pirates engaged the Indian government, actively seeking to affect its behavior, those pirates also became terrorists.

Still, the case of the Asphalt Venture is best seen as an exception that proves the rule. Governments are famous for their refusal to pay ransoms, and pirates generally look to shipping companies and their insurers as the primary source of funds. Even with the Asphalt Venture itself, the pirates turned to the insurance company first, received their ransom, and only then did they make non-pecuniary demands of the Indian government.

I ended my last terrorism-related piece by noting that if “pirates tak[e] a less profitable course in favor of a strategy with large political payoff,” the terrorist-pirate distinction would come into play. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the MV Asphalt Venture. In abandoning their private ends in favor of increased political pressure, those who took the Asphalt Venture did not shed the moniker “pirate,” but they certainly gained the additional, arguably even less appealing label, of “terrorist.”

In the end, however, we should continue to be mindful that nothing short of actively pressuring a government to either take or refrain from a certain action can result in an accurate branding with the scarlet “T.” Looking at a single discrete incident to determine an individual’s motives and classify him as a pirate, terrorist, or both is one thing; seeking to apply the blanket term, “terrorist” to all pirates for political convenience is quite another.

The Piracy Law Graph to End All Piracy Law Graphs

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

The tagline of Communis Hostis Omnium, “Navigating the Murky Legal Waters of Maritime Piracy,” is perfectly apt for describing the nature of piracy law. Even apart from the deft water metaphor, the tagline rightly points out that the nature of the law surrounding the oldest international crime is both unsettled and uncertain.

One of the thorniest doctrinal issues pertaining to piracy law is the question of whether facilitators of piracy must be physically present on the high seas to avail themselves to universal jurisdiction prosecutions. Much attention has been paid to the subject both on the pages of this blog and others. While working on a law review article on the subject, I generated this graph, which should give every international lawyer pause when considering the state of modern piracy law.

I created the graph above using Google Ngram, which is a tool that allows users to view a given word or phrase as a proportion of all words and phrases in the 20 million books scanned by Google to date. Rarely do numerical data paint such a clear picture. In short, piracy was of great import up until the turn of the twentieth century, where it was subsequent relegated to the backburner, not to be revived until the turn of the twenty-first century.

Presumably, international lawyers and the general public perceived this trend in a similar fashion, so the fact that all of the modern positive international law dealing with piracy was drafted during piracy’s wane should have a humbling effect. There is a significant chance that the drafters of UNCLOS and others who played a role in shaping the customary international law vis-à-vis maritime piracy saw piracy as more of a theoretical issue than a practical one. That fact should, in and of itself, play into the contemporary analysis.

This is not to say that the graph above proves anything one way or the other as far as a high seas requirement for facilitators is concerned. Rather, it is meant merely as food for thought to start your week by. We are dealing with an issue whose renaissance was not predicted by many – if any – scholars or practitioners of international law. What to do with that fact is an open question but one that should undoubtedly be taken seriously.

After a Brief Hiatus, Kenya Once Again Has Universal Jurisdiction Over Pirates

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

On October 18, the Kenyan Court of Appeal in Nairobi handed down a pivotal decision in In re Mohamud Mohammed Hashi, et al. It held that Kenya has jurisdiction to try piracy suspects whose alleged acts occurred beyond the country’s territorial waters. Due to Kenya’s central role in the emerging global network of piracy prosecutions, the Court’s ruling in Hashi will have positive implications both within and outside of Kenya.

The Honorable Mr. Justice David K. Maraga (photo: Kenya Law Reports)

The Court of Appeal decision overturns a ruling from the High Court of Mombasa that concluded, as noted by Roger on this blog, that “[Kenyan] Courts can only deal with offences or criminal incidents that take place within the territorial jurisdiction of Kenya.” Rather than summarizing the lower court’s opinion, I will simply direct readers to Roger’s excellent analysis of that case.

On appeal, Justice David Maraga stated that the High Court erred by, 1) “subordinating Section 69 of the Penal Code to Section 5”; 2) misinterpreting Sections 369 and 371 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 2009, and; 3) “fail[ing] to appreciate the applicability of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.”

With regards to the first ground of error, the Court Appeals took issue with the High Court’s interpretation of Section 5 of the Penal Code and its relationship to Section 69. Section 5 states that “The jurisdiction of the courts of Kenya…extends to every place within Kenya, including territorial waters.” The High Court characterized Section 5 as the “defining” Kenyan jurisdictional provision and concluded that Section 69, criminalizing piracy on the high seas, was “void, ab inicio.

Justice Maraga differed with the High Court’s position and held that “there is no conflict or gradation between [Sections 5 and 69].” He noted that Section 5 is part of Chapter 3 of the penal code, entitled “Territorial Application of the Code,” while Section 69 is contained in Chapter 8, “Offences affecting Relations with Foreign States and External Tranquility.” In short, Section 5 concerns itself with the territorial jurisdiction of Kenyan Courts and Section 69 deals with extraterritorial offenses. If anything, concluded Justice Maraga:

“on the established principle of statutory interpretation that in event of inconsistency in statutory provisions the “later in time” prevails, it is Section 69 [passed in 1967] which should supersede Section 5 [passed in 1930] but there is no warrant for that as there is no conflict between the two sections.”

MV Courier, the pirated ship at issue in Hashi (photo: ShipSpotting.com)

The second basis for overturning the High Court’s ruling arises out of the 2009 repeal of Section 69 of the Penal Code and its replacement with Section 369 of the Merchant Shipping Act. Below, the High Court suggested that repealing Section 69 took the crime of piracy jure gentium off the books. However, Section 369 Merchant Shipping Act, the article replacing Section 69, closely tracks UNCLOS article 101’s definition of piracy under international law. Accordingly, although the Merchant Shipping Act does not include the Latin phrase “jure gentium,” the crime of piracy under international law, according to the Court of Appeal, survived the statutory change.

In the alternative, Justice Maraga pointed to Section 23(3) of the Interpretation and General Provisions Act, which states that in the case of a law being repealed mid-proceeding, that proceeding shall move forward “as if the repealing written law had not been made.” Because the act in question was allegedly committed on March 3, 2009 and Section 69 was not repealed until September 1, 2009, the above-mentioned interpretive provision would apply in this case.

The final issue under consideration was the broader question of whether Kenya was authorized under international law to try piracy cases where the act in question was committed outside Kenya’s territorial jurisdiction by perpetrators and against victims who are not Kenyan nationals.

Justice Maraga responded by noting that piracy was a crime of universal jurisdiction and recounting Kenya’s participation in and adoption of UNSCR 1918 in April, 2012. This resolution “Calls on all States, including States in the region, to criminalize piracy under their domestic law and favourably consider the prosecution of suspected…pirates apprehended off the coast of Somalia…” Ultimately, Justice Maraga concluded that:

the offence of piracy on the coast of Somalia, which we are dealing with in this appeal, is of great concern to the international community as it has affected the economic activities and thus the economic well being of many countries including Kenya. All States, not necessarily those affected by it, have therefore a right to exercise universal jurisdiction to punish the offence.

This decision should be welcomed by the international community, especially those involved in the prosecution and detention of suspected pirates. Most immediately, Hashi allows for five separate piracy cases brought under Section 69 of the Kenyan Penal Code to move forward, clearing up a two-year backlog. More importantly, however, the Court of Appeal’s unequivocal acceptance of the principle of universal jurisdiction, its applicability to piracy jure gentium, and its incorporation in Kenyan municipal law ensures that Kenya can continue to play a central role in the regional prosecutions of piracy suspects.

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