By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
NEW YORK, April 21 -- A Somali teenager appeared in federal court Tuesday on charges that he helped hijack an American cargo ship and hold its captain hostage in the Indian Ocean.
The young man identified as Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, said to be the sole survivor among four pirates, frequently wiped his eyes in court and stared straight ahead as he listened to a simultaneous translation of the proceedings through an earpiece.
He is charged with piracy under the law of nations, which carries a mandatory life sentence, as well as four lesser charges, including conspiracy and brandishing and firing a gun during a conspiracy. He is believed to be the first person to be charged in the United States with piracy in almost a century.
On Monday night, a seemingly bewildered Muse had walked into the path of photographers' flashes during a rainstorm, handcuffed with a chain wrapped around his waist. His left hand was bandaged from a stab wound he suffered on the ship.
In court Tuesday, he seemed slight, and he broke down in tears when his court-appointed lawyer said Muse's father could be interviewed by telephone in Somalia to ascertain the date of his birth.
When the federal magistrate judge, Andrew J. Peck, asked Muse if he understood that court-appointed lawyers would represent him, he responded in Somali: "I understand. I don't have any money."
Asked to raise his right hand to be sworn in, Muse raised his arm high above his head.
Peck later announced that Muse could stand trial as an adult.
The government says he is 18, but his lawyers say he is 15. The court eventually placed a conference call to Muse's father, who said his son's birthday is Nov. 20, 1993. But Peck said the father was not credible because he was inconsistent and did not know the precise birth dates of his other children. Birth records could be unavailable because of the long-standing chaos in Somalia.
Muse is accused of being one of four Somali hijackers who attacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship and took its captain hostage for five days. The Somali was taken aboard a U.S. Navy ship before Navy SEAL snipers killed the three pirates who were on a lifeboat. The captain, Richard Phillips, was rescued unharmed.
Speaking to reporters outside the court, Muse's lawyers raised the possibility that, as part of Somalia's civil war, Muse himself may have been captured by the pirates and forced to participate in their mission. The government's complaint describes Muse as the ringleader among the pirates.