Norfolk - The attorney for a Somali man accused of piracy told jurors at trial on Wednesday that his client never agreed to negotiate the release of four Americans killed aboard a sailing yacht and he was merely acting as a mediator aboard a hijacked German vessel where hostages were tortured by pirates.
Mohammad Saaili Shibin faces piracy, hostage-taking and several other federal charges for his alleged role in the hijacking of a German merchant ship in 2010 as well as that of an American yacht off Africa in 2011.
Prosecutors say Shibin was part of a network of upper echelon pirates connected to wealthy financiers who didn't go out with raiding parties seeking ships to hijack. Instead, they say, he was called in to begin negotiations once a ship had been seized and was in Somali waters.
Federal prosecutors said Shibin researched the captured ships and hostages online to determine the size of a ransom to seek and find contact information for a ship's owner and hostages' relatives. The prosecutors say Shibin is considered the highest-ranking pirate the U.S. has captured and brought to trial.
Assistant US Attorney Benjamin Hatch said in opening statements that Shibin was able to secure a $5m ransom for the German ship Marida Marguerite and its 22 member multi-national crew.
He also said he was the person identified by other pirates as responsible for negotiating the release of the Americans onboard the sailing vessel Quest — though negotiations didn't ensue because one of the pirates mistakenly broke the ship's satellite phone out at sea.
In that case, 11 men who boarded the boat pleaded guilty to piracy and have been sentenced to life in prison. Three others charged with murder are awaiting trial.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, California, and friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first US citizens killed in pirate attacks plaguing the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean despite regular international patrols by warships.
They had been sailing around the world when their ship was boarded by 19 men about 1 448km from Somalia. Their boarded yacht was eventually spotted by a plane and the USS Enterprise Strike Group then shadowed the Quest for days amid efforts to secure the Americans' release.
multiple conspiracy charges
Hatch said the destroyer USS Sterett was attempting to manoeuvre between the hijacked yacht and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it, and gunfire onboard the yacht was heard shortly after. By the time Navy SEALs reached the Quest, all four Americans had been shot, Hatch said.
Shibin's court-appointed attorney, James Broccoletti told jurors during opening arguments that the Americans' yacht never should have been hijacked and what happened to the Americans was terrible. But in the case of the Quest, he noted that Shibin never left Somalia. That's important because he contends that unless Shibin committed robbery at sea, he can't be convicted of piracy. Prosecutors contend piracy as defined by 'the law of nations' involves a broader definition.
If convicted of piracy involving either ship, Shibin faces a mandatory life sentence.
Broccoletti said the multiple conspiracy charges against Shibin don't apply because although Shibin had been contacted about serving as the Americans' hostage negotiator, he didn't agree to do it.
In the case of the German ship, Broccoletti said that Shibin had been trying to work as a freelance journalist covering piracy after he had been laid off from an oil company as a translator and dispatcher. He speaks English, Somali, Italian and Arabic. He said Shibin had been contacted about helping the hostages because of his skills and knowledge.
Once onboard, he said Shibin was unable to leave the ship and was treated just as poorly as some of the hostages at times. He said Shibin made a mistake when he accepted $30 000 for his time on board the ship following the release of the hostages.
During testimony Wednesday, Ukranian crewmember Oleg Dereglazov of the captured German ship said Shibin behaved like a pirate leader, ate heavily while on board and got the first choice of a leafy drug, khat, that pirates chewed daily during the eight-month ordeal.
Dereglazov also said he was tortured several times, including being suspended from a meat hook in the ship's freezer. A photo showed to jurors also showed scars on Dereglazov's arms from when his feet and hands were tied together for six hours. Dereglazov said he was tortured because Shibin and the other pirates demanded he tell them were extra fuel reserves were stored aboard, although he said there were no added stocks. He said he was also tortured to desalinate water for other pirate ships.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.