RICHMOND, Va. — Attorneys seeking to overturn the first piracy conviction in a U.S. courtroom in nearly 200 years told a federal appeals panel Tuesday the actions of five Somali men who attacked a Navy warship in waters off Africa did not meet the legal definition of pirates because they did not board the ship or rob it.
The government, however, countered that their violent actions clearly fell within widely accepted international and U.S. law defining piracy.
The hearing was before a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which typically issues an opinion several months after arguments.
The five defendants, who are serving mandatory life terms for their piracy convictions, were found guilty by a jury in Norfolk in the April 1, 2010, attack on the USS Nicholas. The ship was in the Indian Ocean north of the Seychelles Islands when it was attacked by three men in a skiff, who fired rocket-propelled grenades and raked the ship with AK-47 fire. No sailors were injured in the attack.
During arguments before the three judges, an attorney representing one of the Somalis said the government was using “amorphous” interpretations of international law to make the piracy count stick.
The attorney, James R. Theuer, said the Supreme Court has been clear about a key element of piracy: “It is robbery at sea.”
But the government said Congress has embraced the definition of piracy as defined by the law of nations and the evolution of the law over the centuries.
Benjamin L. Hatch, an assistant U.S. attorney, said that piracy definition includes “violent attacks on the high seas” and does not require actual robbery.
The last U.S. conviction for piracy was in 1819, and involved a foreign vessel. U.S. piracy law was based on that case.
Besides piracy, the five Ashland defendants were convicted of plundering, weapons, assault, explosives and conspiracy charges.