Pirate's Youth May Complicate Prosecution Decision

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Authorities investigating the seizure of a U.S. ship continued to sift through fingerprint and DNA evidence yesterday as they deliberated whether to bring to this country a young Somali pirate who surrendered last weekend before three of his associates were killed by American snipers.

The youth, whose age is one of many inconsistencies facing investigators, could be charged with piracy or kidnapping offenses for his role in the capture of Vermont sea captain Richard Phillips off the Horn of Africa last week, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations.

International law allows for piracy suspects to be charged with a crime anywhere across the globe, maritime scholars said, but one likely scenario would send the boy to a federal court in New York City. More than a dozen FBI agents from that city's field office traveled to Somalia last weekend to interview crew members on the Maersk Alabama and gather evidence from the vessel.

Phillips, who was unharmed, was rescued Sunday in a dramatic evening surge by Navy SEALs who took only three shots to kill his captors.

The sole surviving piracy suspect initially gave his age as 19 when he boarded a U.S. ship early Sunday, seeking medical attention for a stab wound on his hand incurred during the initial attack on the Maersk, according to accounts from government officials. But the youth later said he was 16, which would make him a juvenile in the eyes of the U.S. court system. Law enforcement officials would need to make a determination to try him as an adult, something that is not uncommon in other kinds of cases, including violent drug gangs, for example, lawyers said. Birth records in his home country, Somalia, are difficult to obtain, posing another challenge for federal investigators.

Authorities are deliberating whether to send the youth to Kenya for trial or into the American court system. The Kenyan government has agreed to accept piracy suspects and try them in courts there under the terms of an international agreement. But such trials involve costly security measures that could burden the East African nation.

If the youth were indicted by a U.S. grand jury and brought to this country, it would offer the first major test in years of American anti-piracy laws, which date to the 19th century, according to law professors who follow the issue. Immigration law could also come into play. If the suspect were convicted in an American court and served prison time here, it would be difficult to send him back to Somalia upon his release, posing a question for immigration officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

"Trying pirates in the U.S. for an attack on an American vessel makes more sense than any other scenario I can think of," said piracy law expert Samuel P. Menefee, who has written nearly four dozen articles on maritime issues. "If there are any problems with American law, certainly now is the time to find out so that we can bring our law on the subject into the 21st century."

A decision on where and how to prosecute could be days away, officials said.

"The Justice Department continues to review all evidence and other issues related to this matter and is committed to bringing a prosecution if the evidence so warrants," department spokesman Dean Boyd said yesterday.

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