A Somali suspect in the hijacking of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama last month pleaded not guilty to 10 counts including piracy, hostage-taking, and firearms charges in U.S. District Court in New York on Thursday.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse faces life in prison if convicted in any of eight of the 10 counts, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The U.S. Navy took Muse into custody April 12 after the hijacking in the Indian Ocean. He arrived in the United States April 21. At his arraignment Thursday, Muse stood before Judge Loretta Preska wearing navy-blue prison garb and a bright orange undershirt. The defendant appeared dejected as he listened to the proceedings through the voice of an interpreter, looking downwards at his lap and feet most of the time. The indictment charges Muse with eight counts that each could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison: piracy, possession of a machine gun while seizing a ship by force, hostage-taking, conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, possession of a machine gun during hostage-taking, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and possession of a machine gun during kidnapping. The remaining two charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars: seizing a ship by force and conspiracy to seize a ship by force. Defense attorney Phil Weinstein asked the court for time for the defense to conduct its own investigation into the case, and the judge agreed, setting the next hearing date for September 17. Weinstein then expressed concern over Muse’s treatment under incarceration, alleging that prison officials were administering medication to him without proper consent and were denying him phone calls to his family in Somalia. Weinstein also expressed concern about Muse’s detention conditions. “He’s been held in administrative segregation since his arrest, which means he’s detained alone for 23 out of 24 hours a day,” Weinstein told reporters gathered outside the courthouse. “He’s unable to communicate with anyone except for us.”
Criminal complaint (U.S. v. Muse)
Suspect in ship hijacking charged with piracy
Muse’s defense team was joined outside the courthouse by Idd Beddel Mohamed, deputy permanent representative to Somalia’s mission to the United Nations in New York. He told reporters his government is monitoring the proceedings and working with the federal public defenders to ensure proper legal protection for Muse. “We have full confidence in the U.S. legal system and we believe justice will be served,” Mohamed told reporters. See timeline of events that led to piracy case » There had been questions about Muse’s age, with his father in Somalia telling defense attorneys his son was only 15. But, a U.S. magistrate judge ruled that Muse is in fact older than 18 and can be tried as an adult. Still, the defense team continues to raise questions about Muse’s exact age. They say they are working with Mohamed and other Somali officials to try to secure proper documentation of Muse’s birth date. Pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship, April 8 about 350 miles off the Somali coast, according to the criminal complaint. They boarded the ship after firing gunshots, according to crew members quoted in the complaint. Muse was carrying a gun and was the first alleged pirate on the ship, the complaint said. According to the complaint, Muse fired his gun at the Maersk’s captain, Richard Phillips, and then took $30,000 from the ship’s safe after he forced Phillips to open it. A Maersk crew member managed to tackle Muse and tie his hands, leading to a deal with the pirates: They would leave the ship if Muse was returned to them and if they got a life boat, the complaint said. Phillips boarded the life boat with them and the ship’s crew freed Muse, who then boarded the life boat, according to the criminal complaint. Over the next three days, the life boat floated near the Maersk with the U.S. Navy’s USS Bainbridge nearby.
On April 12, Muse boarded the USS Bainbridge and demanded safe passage for himself and the other pirates in exchange for Phillips’ release. But while he was aboard, Navy SEALs, or special forces, shot and killed the three remaining pirates and freed Phillips. The criminal complaint said Muse “conducted himself as the leader” of the pirates who allegedly took over the Maersk Alabama. Still, defense attorneys said they believe Muse will be exonerated in the end. “The complaint says that [Muse] requested … from the Americans to come aboard the Navy ship, and they granted him that permission,” defense attorney Fiona Doherty told reporters Thursday. “And from there, that’s where he was trying to negotiate for the safe release of Captain Phillips.”