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Federal trial begins in Va. for Somali man accused of being a high-ranking pirate negotiator
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) ' The attorney for a Somali man accused of piracy told jurors at trial 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 role in the hijacking of a German merchant ship in 2010 as well as an American yacht off Africa in 2011.
Federal prosecutors contend Shibin was a key figure in Somali piracy, acting as a land-based negotiator who researched ships and hostages online after they had been captured to determine how large of a ransom to seek for them once they were brought to lawless Somalia.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Hatch said during opening arguments that Shibin was able to secure a $5 million ransom for the German ship Marida Marguerite and its 22 member multi-national crew and that he was the person identified by other pirates as responsible for negotiating the release of the Americans onboard the sailing vessel Quest.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first U.S. citizens killed in pirate attacks that have plagued 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 400 miles south of Oman and 900 miles away from Somalia. Their boarded yacht was eventually spotted by a plane flying overhead and then the USS Enterprise Strike Group began shadowing the Quest as authorities tried to negotiate the hostage's release over several days.
Hatch said the destroyer USS Sterett was attempting to maneuver between the hijacked yacht and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it, and that 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 a terrible thing. 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.
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. Broccoletti said travel documents would prove that Shibin had intended to leave the country to visit his sister when the Quest was hijacked.
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 said that's why Shibin had been contacted about helping the hostages. Once onboard the ship, he said Shibin was unable to leave it and that he was treated just as poorly as some of the hostages at times.
Prosecutors say Shibin was part of a sophisticated network of upper echelon pirates connected to wealthy financiers who didn't go out with raiding parties in search of ships to hijack. Instead, they say, he was called in to begin negotiations once a ship had been hijacked and was in Somali waters.
During testimony Wednesday, crewmember Oleg Dereglazov of the captured German ship said that Shibin behaved like a pirate leader, ate heavily while on board the ship and got the first choice of a leafy drug that pirate members chewed on a daily basis called khat.
Dereglazov also said he was tortured multiple times, including being suspended from a meat hook in the ship's freezer. Dereglazov's testimony was expected to continue Thursday.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.
Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis