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Justices won’t second-guess 4th Circuit on piracy

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down an appeal from Somali men who were the first people convicted on federal piracy charges in nearly 200 years.

The justices did not comment in refusing to go into the convictions and sentences of life in prison.

The five defendants were prosecuted in Norfolk, Va., the first in a series of government prosecutions aimed at slowing the spread of piracy off Africa. It was the first piracy conviction in a U.S. courtroom since 1819.

The attacks came as pirates increased assaults in the waters off East Africa despite an international flotilla of warships dedicated to protecting vessels and stopping the pirate assaults.

The Nicholas, which was part of the flotilla, was mistaken for a merchant ship because the Navy used a lighting array to disguise the 453-foot warship and attract pirates. Three pirates in a skiff fired rocket-propelled grenades and raked the ship with AK-47 fire in the Indian Ocean north of the Seychelles Islands. No sailors were injured in the attack.

Defense lawyers had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the Virginia-based USS Nicholas.

But the government said that the Somalis had confessed to attacking the U.S. Navy ship after mistaking it for a merchant ship.

The court also rejected a separate appeal from another group of Somalis who have yet to be tried on piracy charges.

In that case, a lower court judge had dismissed charges against five Somalis in an attack on the USS Ashland, ruling since the men had not taken control or robbed the ship, their actions did not rise to the definition of piracy.

But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that an armed attack on a U.S. vessel constituted piracy. That ruling sent the case back to U.S. District Court for trial.

In the attack on the Ashland, a 610-foot dock landing ship, the ship’s 25mm cannons destroyed a skiff, killing one Somali man and injuring several others.

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