Judge Rules Purported Pirate Will Be Tried As Adult

James Cohen on NY1, April 21, 2009

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A Somali man accused of being the only surviving pirate in the hijacking of United States cargo ship the Maersk Alabama was charged as an adult Tuesday after admitting his real age.

Abduhl Wal-i-Musi is now charged with several counts including piracy and will be tried in open court. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence behind bars.

Monday's hearing inside a federal court in Lower Manhattan was closed until Judge Andrew Peck could determine whether Musi was at least 18-years-old. The closed-door hearing included a phone call to Musi's father in Somalia.

"We'll continue to examine it and collect evidence, this was just the first stage and obviously we'd ask that you keep an open mind and to tell the public to keep an open mind the charges are only the government's side of it. We believe Mr. Muse may be exonerated," said Assistant Federal Defender Deirdre von Dornum.

Wal-i-Musi will be the first person tried on piracy charges in the United States in more than a century.

New York prosecutors have a lot of experience with terrorism suspects, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. Fordham University Professor Jim Cohen says that's likely why the case is being tried in the city.

"United States statutes cover this. In other words, they apply to extra-United States conduct when it happens on the seas. Second, any pirate conduct, any piracy, can be prosecuted anywhere as long as there's a government to enforce it which, of course, is not the case in Somalia," said Cohen.

Wali-i-Musi's mother also insists he was coaxed by gangsters into a life of piracy, according to the Associated Press. The AP says the mother appealed to President Barack Obama to pardon her son.

Musi is one of four Somali men accused of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama more than a week ago. Captain Richard Phillips was held hostage for five days off the coast of Somalia.

Phillips was freed when three pirates were killed by Navy SEALs.

According to CNN, the accused pirate cried during the hearing, which is in great contrast to the smiling man who arrived in New York late Monday night.

"You might know he's never seen a camera before. He comes from a place with no electricity, no water, and he's outside for the first time. He's been held with a blindfold and shackled for eight days, I'd smile too," said von Dornum.

Musi's next court appearance is scheduled for May 21st.