Pirate comes to NY, world away from home in Africa

April 21, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse grew up destitute in Somalia, the product of a violent, lawless nation where his mother scraped together a few dollars a day selling milk and tending to a small herd of camels, cows and goats. For entertainment, he would frequent a run-down outdoor cinema and watch Bollywood movies in a town with no running water or electricity. He eventually joined up with a gang of pirates who laid siege to an American cargo ship and took the captain hostage. The standoff ended last week with three of the pirates killed by U.S. Navy snipers. Muse survived but was stabbed in the hand with an ice pick.

On Tuesday, the teenager found himself a world away from the dusty tenements and pirate ships of Somalia, appearing in a packed federal courtroom in New York on what are believed to be the first piracy charges in the U.S. in more than a century.

The 5-foot-2 Muse looked bewildered and so scrawny that his prison clothes were several sizes too big. He had a frayed white bandage where he was stabbed.

When his court-appointed lawyer said Muse's father would be interviewed in Somalia to verify his birthdate, Muse put his head in his hand and broke down in tears. When the judge asked him if he understood that court-appointed lawyers would represent him, the teenager responded through a translator: "I understand. I don't have any money." When he was asked to raise his right hand, he pointed it into the air as if he was being called on in class.

The decision by the federal government to bring Muse to justice here has thrust the skinny teenager into the international spotlight, and raised legal questions about whether the U.S. is going too far in trying to make an example of someone so young.

Muse was charged with piracy, conspiracy and brandishing and firing a gun during a conspiracy. The most serious count carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

"An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations," said Acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin.

The government says he is 18. A federal judge agreed Tuesday, ruling that Muse is an adult and that the case can proceed in open court. But his lawyers are likely to press on with their argument that he is just 15. If he is found to be underage, defense lawyers could try to have the case tossed out or seek leniency if he is convicted.

Establishing his age could prove difficult because the anarchy that has existed in Somalia over the past two decades makes it unlikely that any birth records exist. Muse's mother said he was delivered by a midwife, and not in a hospital.

Prosecutors might send Muse to a dentist to help determine his age by analyzing his teeth, a solution courts have used in the past for Somali defendants.

"We have a lot of teenagers going through the courts almost every day," said Omar Jamal, executive director of Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, which has a large Somali population. "The question always comes up. `He's 15. No, he's not.' They send him to a dentist and bring him in to testify."

The details of Muse's life are murky, with his parents in Somalia insisting he was tricked into getting involved in piracy. His mother said he was "wise beyond his years" -- a child who ignored other boys his age who tried to tease him and got lost in books instead.

"The last time I saw him he was in his school uniform," the teen's mother, Adar Abdirahman Hassan, 40, told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday from her home in Galkayo. "He was brainwashed. People who are older than him outwitted him, people who are older than him duped him."

Muse's mother sells milk at a small market every day, saving around $6 every month for school fees for her oldest son. She pays $15 a month in rent.

Jamal said his Somali immigrant organization made contact with family members of the pirates during the hostage standoff in the Indian Ocean.

Muse's family members "don't have any money. The father has some camels and cows and goats outside the city. ... The father goes outside with the livestock and comes home at night. Father said they don't have any money, they are broke," Jamal said.

At some point, Muse teamed up with the pirates who set their sights on the Maersk Alabama as it carried humanitarian supplies to Africa. They stormed the ship with AK-47s and tangled with the Maersk crew. A Connecticut crewman led Muse into the engine room, where he says he plunged an ice pick into the pirate's hand.

The pirates held the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage for several days on a sweltering lifeboat before Muse surrendered to seek medical attention aboard the USS Bainbridge for his hand.

The crew member who stabbed Muse said Tuesday that the teenager counted himself lucky to raid a U.S. ship and carried himself as the leader of the pirate gang.

"He was surprised he was on a U.S. ship. He kept asking, `You all come from America?' Then he claps and cheers and smiles. He caught himself a big fish. He can't believe it," said crewmember ATM "Zahid" Reza. Muse planned to demand at least $3 million, Reza said.

Reza said Muse told him it was his dream to come to America. "His dreams come true, but he comes to the U.S. Not as a visitor, but as a prisoner," Reza said.

Alfred P. Rubin, a professor of international law at Tufts University who wrote a book on piracy, said there had not been a major pirate prosecution in the United States since 1885, when the American ship Ambrose Light was attacked by pirates.

Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University's Law School, noted that the U.S. is bringing Muse to trial in a civilian court instead of sending him to Guantanamo. But she said the move could still subject the U.S. to criticism from the rest of the world.

"If he is a juvenile and he is tried as an adult and given life imprisonment, it will not help the reputation we are trying hard to reform," Greenberg said. "International law is more lenient when it comes to juveniles, and we already take criticism."

Jamal said his organization was working to get a lawyer for Muse and to find if he has medical or mental problems.

"What we have is a confused teenager, overnight thrown into the highest level of the criminal justice system in the United States out of a country where there's no law at all," Jamal said. Muse speaks no English, he said. (However, a classmate in Somalia said Muse studied English at school.)

U.S. officials said the teenager was brought to New York in part because the FBI office here has a history of handling cases in Africa involving major crimes against Americans, such as the al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

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Associated Press writers Tom Hays in Riverside, Calif.; Devlin Barrett in Washington; Ashley Thomas in Philadelphia; Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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