As we’ve all learned over the past few weeks, piracy isn’t all about wearing black eyeliner and walking with a permanent rum stumble. The new modern symbol of piracy is Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, a young Somali man with a wide smile. On April 8, Muse famously boarded the Maersk Alabama with three other men, who together took the ship’s captain hostage at gunpoint and demanded money. Now he’s in New York City facing prosecution in the United States. But how does a 21st century pirate defend himself, when most of our laws against piracy are at least 100 years old?
We spoke to Alexander Greenawalt, an assistant professor of law at Pace Law School and an expert in international law, to see what tactics Muse’s lawyers are probably mulling:
The “Part-time Pirate” Defense: Muse’s attorneys could claim he was only an occasional pirate and invoke jurisdiction. “Piracy is actually the original crime of universal jurisdiction,” Greenawalt said, explaining that any nation may take a pirate back to its own territory for prosecution, whether or not the alleged pirates and their victims have any connection with the prosecuting government, as long as piracy was committed in international waters. The defense doesn’t appear to be planning to deny he performed any of the accused actions, but they may still claim it was a one-time thing and he should be tried elsewhere.
Invocation of the Geneva Conventions: The defense may attempt to invoke the Geneva Convention treaties that address treatment of injured combatants at sea and protocols for prisoners of war. “We don’t normally think of them in the context of piracy,” Greenawalt said. “I think you’re going to have a whole host of questions about whether the Conventions apply.”
The Age Obfuscation: There’s a reason why there was such fuss over Muse’s age. Greenawalt said that issues of due process may emerge because so much of the evidence in this case is overseas, including any records that could help justify charging Muse as either a juvenile or an adult.
The Victimization Defense: Culpability could be another key issue. Muse’s defense attorneys have already begun a campaign to paint Muse as a victim of ignorance and bleak circumstances, and have argued that he got “caught up” with the circumstances. But as Greenawalt mentioned, ignorance and victimization are far from foolproof arguments in the American justice system. (Hint: Blaming it on the rum probably won’t work either.)
The current statute on piracy mandates a life sentence, though times have changed since the likes of Blackbeard roamed the seas and U.S. laws were originally written. If Muse is found not guilty, or if he is convicted but does not serve a life sentence, he would likely be deported upon his release. However, he could apply for political asylum, and we could permanently have a pirate in our midst. As to why the smiley little pirate is in New York City in the first place, Greenawalt speculated that Muse was brought here because our federal courts have so much experience with cases involving terrorism and Africa.