SCOTUS Denies Hearing of Piracy Cases

Lady Justice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

We have been following a number of piracy cases in the U.S. two of which had resulted in convictions and looked like they might be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The issue in U.S. v. Said and U.S. v. Dire was whether piracy, as defined by the law of nations, incorporates modern developments in international law. See also here. By declining to hear the cases, SCOTUS takes no view on the debate. However, in several lower court decisions, judges have relied on the pronouncement in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that claims “must be gauged against the current state of international law, looking to those sources we have long, albeit cautiously, recognized.” This conclusion runs counter to a judicial philosophy of strictly construing the plain language of a statute based on the understanding of the congressional authors at the time the act came into law. Because piracy was a novel issue unaddressed by SCOTUS in several hundred years, and because the legal issue on appeal invited strong ideological views, I had thought the case for hearing Said and Dire was fairly strong. Nonetheless, one weakness in the argument was that there was no split of authority between the federal courts of appeal (one basis for SCOTUS granting discretionary review). Both cases originated in the 4th circuit and reached the same conclusion on this point of law.

The same is not necessarily true in a second set of cases in U.S. courts involving pirate negotiators. In the case of U.S. v. Shibin, in the 4th Circuit, the defendant was convicted for aiding and abetting piracy although he was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters. In U.S. v. Ali, the federal court in the DC Circuit reached the opposite result and dismissed the aiding and abetting charges against an alleged pirate negotiator because it held that piracy must be committed on the high seas. These cases raise the issue of whether piracy can be perpetrated on land or within a state’s territorial waters, despite UNCLOS defining piracy as an offense perpetrated on the high seas. U.S. v. Ali is the subject of a prosecution interlocutory appeal on this issue, and Shibin’s conviction is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. Therefore SCOTUS might have another opportunity to get involved in the piracy debate and to make a contribution to the status of customary international law on the subject – although it might take another year for these cases to be ripe for review. On the other hand, it appears both circuits might reach the same conclusion and find that aiding and abetting piracy can be perpetrated on land – a position I have argued in a forthcoming law review article in the Florida Journal of International Law.

 

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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.

New Article: Pirate Accessory Liability

In view of the debate concerning the prosecution of pirate leaders and financiers, I have posted a new article on SSRN entitled: Pirate Accessory Liability – Developing a modern legal regime governing incitement and intentional facilitation of maritime piracy. I attach the abstract for your information:

Despite the exponential growth of piracy off the coast of Somalia since 2008, there have been no prosecutions of those who have profited most from ransom proceeds; that is crime bosses and pirate financiers. As U.S. courts begin to charge higher-level pirates, they must ascertain the status of customary international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS includes two forms of accessory liability suited to such prosecutions, but a number of ambiguities remain in the interpretation of these forms of liability. These lacunae cannot be explained by reference to the plain terms of the UNCLOS or the travaux préparatoires and leaving domestic jurisdictions to fill these gaps risks creating a fragmented, and potentially contradictory, legal framework. On the contrary, resort to general principles of law ascertained by international criminal tribunals creates a predictable, and consistent, understanding of these modes of responsibility. This article shows how the jurisprudence of the ad hoc criminal tribunals fills the gaps in the law related to incitement and intentional facilitation of piracy. It further shows how these modes of responsibility are particularly suited to charges of financing pirate organizations or inciting children to participate in pirate enterprises.

A High Seas Requirement for Pirate Facilitators Under UNCLOS?

Regular contributor Jon Bellish presents the following commentary, cross-posted at The View From Above. We previously posted on this topic here and here where Roger reached similar conclusions to Douglas Guilfoyle, cited below. Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project in Boulder, Colorado (though all of his views are his own), and he has experience in United States piracy trials. He just got on Twitter.

The economic conditions in Somalia are such that there is no shortage of men willing to hijack a ship, risking their lives in hopes of earning of the equivalent of 20 years of income – $5,000 in Somalia – out of a single $1.5 million ransom. That basic reality is the driving force of modern maritime piracy, and it leads to a similarly basic conclusion.

Aside from fixing the economic situation in Somalia, prosecution of those higher up in the criminal chain of conspiracy – the investors and financiers of piratical operations – is the most effective, non-violent means of to putting an end to maritime piracy. If labor is cheap and capital is scarce, it makes sense to go after the capital.

The United States government has done its part by prosecuting two pirate negotiators,[1] Mohammad Saaili Shibin and Ali Mohamed Ali. The current dispositions of these cases highlight an interesting and important legal issue stemming from a common characteristic of piracy higher-ups. They themselves never set foot on the high seas.[2]

In Shibin’s case, Judge Robert Doumar allowed his trial to proceed; Shibin was found guilty and sentenced to 12 terms of life. In the Ali case however, which is still in progress, Judge Ellen Huevelle has found[3] that the perpetrator must be on the high seas for a crime of universal jurisdiction to occur.

What accounts for this discrepancy in United States courts? Who has the better of the argument? The answers to these questions have profound implications for the future of prosecuting those who profit most from piracy.

At the heart of this disagreement is a dispute over the proper interpretation of the UNCLOS definition of piracy and the United States’s federal statute criminalizing piracy under the law of nations. Both of these texts must be read according to one of the most basic canons of statutory interpretation — that statutory language not be read as being duplicative or ineffectual.

Opponents of a high seas requirement, such as Douglas Guilfoyle at University College London, argue  that UNCLOS art. 101’s definition of piracy makes it clear that performing piratical acts carries a high seas requirement, but acts of inciting or intentionally facilitating piracy can be performed anywhere, implying that both are crimes of universal jurisdiction.

To support this argument, opponents cite art. 101(a)(i) of UNCLOS, which states that piracy “consists of…any act of violence or detention [or deprivation]… committed for private ends by the crew… of a private ship…and directed…on the high seas, against another ship” [emphasis added]. They contrast that section with the next part of the piracy definition, art. 101(c), which says “any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a)” constitutes piracy. Opponents of a high seas requirement for facilitators conclude that, because UNCLOS announces a high seas requirement in subparagraph (a) and not in subparagraph (c), no such requirement exists for facilitation.

Conversely, proponents of a high seas requirement, including Northwestern University’s Eugene Kontorovich, cite various provisions of UNCLOS suggesting that universal jurisdiction over maritime piracy exists only where the act takes place on the high seas.

Chief among these provisions are arts. 100 and 105. The former limits a state’s duty to cooperate in the repression of piracy, and the latter restricts states’ universal capturing and adjudicating authority over pirates to acts occurring on the high seas. Additionally, art. 86 explicitly states that Part VII of UNCLOS (the part including the definition of piracy) only applies to the high seas and other areas outside the jurisdiction of any state.

Opponents counter that even if all of the aforementioned high seas references are operable, the drafters’ inclusion of a high seas requirement in 101(a) is otiose if 101(a) and (c) already had an implicit high seas requirement. Any other reading, they argue, is contrary to one of the most fundamental canons of statutory interpretation.

This is a mistake stemming from a conflation of UNCLOS’s definition of piracy and its pronouncements on universal jurisdiction. Opponents may be correct in suggesting that there is no high seas requirement for facilitators to commit statutory piracy as defined by UNCLOS, but they are wrong in arguing that performing an act described in art. 101 leads directly to universal jurisdiction.

Where piracy is concerned, UNCLOS performs at least two discrete functions: defining piracy and delineating the metes and bounds of universal jurisdiction over piracy. Art. 101 defines piracy as, inter alia, any act of violence, detention or deprivation on the high seas or any act of inciting or intentionally facilitating such an act. Where the statutory definition is concerned, there is a high seas requirement for perpetrators but none for inciters or facilitators.

Art. 101 says nothing about universal jurisdiction, however, and the parts of UNCLOS that do discuss universal jurisdiction – arts. 100, 105, and 86 – make it unmistakably plain that such jurisdiction extends only to acts physically performed on the high seas.

This dichotomy between the statutory definition of piracy and the high seas requirement for universal jurisdiction over piracy is borne out in 18 U.S.C. § 1651, which reads, “Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”

Section 1651 splices the definition of piracy and its high seas requirement as precondition for universal jurisdiction, outsourcing the former to international law (“as defined by the law of nations”) while making the latter explicit in the treaty (“[w]hoever, on the high seas”) , which is entirely consistent with the plain language of UNCLOS and the canon of construction at issue.

This means that, as defined by UNCLOS, negotiators and financiers who never set foot on the high seas have committed piracy, but that they have not committed a crime of universal jurisdiction. Unless higher-ups enter the high seas, they can be prosecuted only under the territorial, national, passive personality, and protective bases for jurisdiction.

At first blush, it may appear that such an interpretation does not bode well for those seeking to put an end to the global menace of maritime piracy, especially in light of the widely-held belief that the surest non-violent way to deter the piracy, apart from economic reconstruction in Somalia, is through the aggressive prosecution of so-called pirate “kingpins.”

In the coming weeks, however, I hope to dispel the notion that a high seas requirement for facilitators is bad for the international community. Such a requirement is in line with the policy rationale behind universal jurisdiction and it may ultimately be useful in prosecuting and punishing pirate financiers who never leave dry land.


[1] To be clear; negotiators are not financiers. Financiers perform much less physical labor and reap much more of the profits than negotiators. Though it is financiers that should be the ultimate targets, negotiators are in a similar legal position and are therefore highly relevant. Both groups facilitate, rather than perpetrate acts of piracy, and neither tends to enter the high seas.

[2] This fact was stipulated in Shibin’s case but is still at issue in Ali’s. Although the government claims Ali spent only 24-28 minutes outside Somali territorial waters, it has admitted that there is no evidence that Ali actively facilitated piracy during that time period.

[3] Take a look at Judge Huvelle’s opinion, which is a fine example of the U.S. Federal Bench’s appreciation and understanding of international law.

Negotiator Sentenced to Multiple Life Terms – SCOTUS on the horizon

Defendant Mohamed Salid Shibin appears in court

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.

Members of Ogoni Community interested by Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Source: Amnesty International

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.

Pirate Attacks Hit “Low Season” in Somalia – Why and What’s Next?

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia continued to fall sharply in the first half of 2012.  July 2012 was particularly significant, with no reported attempted attack. Remarkably, it was the first full month with no noteworthy pirate activity off the coast of Somalia and the larger Indian Ocean since at least half a decade. The last reported attack dates back to 26 June 2012, when a Maltese-flagged bulk ship was fired upon near the Yemeni coast. As of 29 July 2012, Somali pirates are still holding at least 11 vessels and 174 crew members.

A piracy situational map we’ve rarely seen – Courtesy Oceanus Live

The suprising drop in Somali pirate activity is spurring a debate on the reasons behind it and the impact of the international efforts to counter pirate attacks. Among the main factors are the pre-emptive and disruptive counter piracy tactics employed by the international navies, with military operations now extending both at sea and on land, the effective implementation of the Best Management Practices by the shipping industry, including the use of citadels and other ship hardening means, the strengthening of a regional judicial system of law enforcement and prosecution, also targeting piracy financiers and kingpins, and in particular, the manyfold increase in the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel and government-provided Vessel Protection Detachments by ships travelling through the area. It is likely that all these factors together and concurrently have contributed to the falling numbers, tipping the risk aspect to rise above the possible profit expectations for wannabe pirates. Bad monsoon weather is also an additional factor often overlooked, with July and August being traditionally difficult months to set off to sea in the region for both pirate mother ships and small skiffs.

What’s Behind the Horizon?

The current status quo requires the operational strategy to continue and focus also on wider land-based solutions encompassing both security and economic development. Some commentators have warned that pirates and their financiers are simply sitting idle awaiting for better days to come.  Notably, August 2012 will mark the end of the Somalia TGF. While there are high hopes for a better future for Somalia, it is difficult to assess how this will reshape the Country’s current political landscape. There are also fears that the successes of current anti-piracy measures will detract the necessary attention below warning levels with a consequential lull in the international and national effors to combat piracy. If so, the momentum could shift back in the pirates’ favor.

Intentional Facilitation and Commission of Piracy as part of a Joint Criminal Enterprise

Defendant Ali Mohamed Ali, Source: Foxnews

In the U.S. government’s efforts to ramp up piracy prosecutions to include pirate kingpins, several cases of mid-level negotiators are working their way through the courts. We discussed one such case here. Another such prosecution recently met some setbacks when a U.S. District Court ruled in U.S. v. Ali that conspiracy to commit piracy was not a cognizable crime and further limited the application of intentional facilitation of piracy to acts committed on the high seas. See alsohere. The latter issue was apparently moot at the outset since the prosecution alleged that the negotiator was on the high seas when he intentionally facilitated the acts of piracy. However, in a contentious hearing last week, it became apparent that the Accused only spent about 25 minutes on the high seas and that his criminal conduct may not have occurred in that time frame. Therefore the high seas issue is now central to the outcome of the case. The Prosecution has signalled its intent to file an interlocutory appeal and the Judge has ordered that the Accused be released on bail, noting misrepresentations by the prosecution on this issue. In my view, the conspiracy ruling was correct, but intentional facilitation was improperly limited to conduct on the high seas. This latter error would impede future prosecutions of pirate leaders in U.S. courts.

It should be made clear that U.S. courts that have addressed the issue in the last several years have uniformly concluded that although the U.S. is not a party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, this treaty contains the definition of piracy under customary international law which is incorporated by the U.S. piracy statute (18 USC 1651). Therefore, piracy is defined in the U.S. purely by reference to international law, and not domestic U.S. law. See here for further background.

In its 13 July Decision in U.S. v. Ali, the Court held that the piracy statute requires that intentional facilitation occur on the high seas. See Memorandum Opinion at 17. I disagree with this interpretation of UNCLOS for several reasons. First, a plain language reading of UNCLOS does not impose a requirement that inciting or intentionally facilitating an act of piracy occur on the high seas. Article 101(a)(i) of UNCLOS defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends […] on the high seas […]” Intentional facilitation of such an act of piracy appears in subsection (c) of Article 101 which does not include the requirement that the act occur on the high seas. In other words, the illegal act of violence or detention must occur on the high seas, but the facilitation need not occur there.

The U.S. piracy statute could create some confusion as it specifically refers to piracy committed on the high seas which might be interpreted to extend the high seas requirement to intentional facilitation. (See 18 USC 1651 which provides in full, “Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”) However, the reference to piracy on the high seas in 18 USC 1651 is redundant. By definition under customary international law, acts of piracy (though not incitement or facilitation) must occur on the high seas. The reference to acts on the high seas in 18 USC 1651 was only meant to emphasize that conduct committed in the territorial waters of another state would not constitute piracy (such conduct is instead robbery at sea, solely within the purview of the littoral state). It is not at all clear that Congress would intend to modify the otherwise settled view of the law of nations. Therefore, to impose the high seas requirement on subsection (c) of UNCLOS (pertaining to intentional facilitation), which does not appear in the plain language of the treaty, would be contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Charming Betsy canon (whereby a statute should be construed not to violate international law).

Furthermore, restricting intentional facilitation of piracy to crimes perpetrated wholly on the high seas is not necessary to protect the sovereignty of states where pirate kingpins may reside. The piracy statute only provides personal jurisdiction over those who are “afterwards brought into or found in the United States.” If a pirate kingpin has negotiated a ransom from the territory of another state, the U.S. must request extradition through the usual means prescribed by international law. For all of these reasons, the high seas requirement should not be added to the crime of intentional facilitation of piracy.

As to the District Court’s second holding, the decision to dismiss the conspiracy to commit piracy charge appears well-founded. However, it is worth considering whether other forms of responsibility, firmly established in customary international law, might support the criminalization of the conduct in question. For example, commission has been interpreted by the ad hoc tribunals (ICTR, ICTY, SCSL, STL) to encompass the form of responsibility referred to as joint criminal enterprise (JCE) where there exists (1) a plurality of persons; (2) a common plan, design or purpose which amounts to or involves the commission of a crime and (4) the accused’s participation in the common plan. Of course, the tribunals did not have competence to consider charges of piracy. However, similar forms of accessory liability are found in numerous domestic legal systems and piracy prosecutions in Seychelles have been successful on a theory of accomplice liability akin to JCE. See here and here. This mode of responsibility has not been considered by any U.S. court in a piracy case.

Jama Idle Ibrahim, sentenced last year to 25 years for his role in the same attack, will be a government witness against Ali.

Apart from the jurisdictional issues, the ultimate question in this prosecution is whether negotiators acting as middlemen between pirate hostage-takers and those seeking their release “intentionally facilitate” piracy pursuant to UNCLOS. The answer will depend on the factual circumstances and how the mens rea of facilitation is construed. The drafters of UNCLOS limited facilitation by requiring that the accused intentionally (not merely negligently or recklessly) facilitated the piratical act. This suggests not only that the Accused must intend to support the illegal act of violence or detention, but also that the facilitator must share the pirate’s intent to commit the act “for private ends” (i.e. for personal enrichment or other non-political purposes). Involvement in negotiations to release the hostages for humanitarian reasons would not satisfy this mens rea requirement. Elsewhere, Professor Kontorovich suggests that intentional facilitation cannot occur after an act of piracy, but must have occurred prior to it. But if the piratical act was committed with the pre-formed intent to hold hostages for ransom, then the completed piratical act would not have been possible but for the intervention and assistance of a negotiator to complete the transaction. If a negotiator also possesses the intent to personally enrich himself, the conduct would appear to fall within Article 101(c) of UNCLOS.

One final word about the fairness of this prosecution. Depending on the circumstances of a case, the negotiation of a ransom (or the financing of piracy for that matter) may appear to be less reprehensible than the acts of violence committed against seafarers on the high seas. Such is the dichotomy between low-level perpetrators and their white-collar sponsors. If a mandatory life sentence, as is imposed by the U.S. piracy statute, is inappropriate in some cases involving accomplice liability, this is a matter of charging strategy best left to the prosecutor. There are a number of other non-piracy statutes in the prosecutor’s repertoire that could be put to use. But it is an overbroad statement to assert that all white-collar facilitators of piracy deserve leniency.