A federal jury convicted five Somali men Wednesday of piracy on the high seas, the first such verdict in an American court in nearly 200 years, for shooting at a U.S. Navy warship disguised as a merchant vessel in the Indian Ocean last spring.
The conviction on all counts after a dramatic trial in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison plus 80 years. Defense lawyers said they would appeal.
The five defendants stood without expression and listened to an interpreter through earphones as the court clerk pronounced them each guilty on 14 counts, including attempts to plunder a vessel and assault with a deadly weapon.
"Today's conviction demonstrates that armed attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels are crimes against the international community and that pirates will face severe consequences in U.S. courts," Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, said in a conference call.
He emphasized that Somali sea bandits had devastated normal shipping off the Horn of Africa, and that U.S. courts and warships were not the only answer.
"It's an international problem, and it's going to require an international solution," MacBride said.
Defense lawyer Jon M. Babineau said in a telephone interview that his client, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, was "very solemn, very sad" after the verdict. "He now knows he's going to die in a U.S. prison," the lawyer said.
The five Somalis, all in their 20s, were accused of firing AK-47 assault rifles at the guided-missile frigate Nicholas as it patrolled for pirates more than 500 nautical miles off the east coast of Somalia last April 1.
Prosecutors said Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Abdullahi Ali and Abdi Wali Dire sped up to the warship in an open skiff shortly after midnight and began shooting. They surrendered after the Navy returned fire from heavy machine guns.
The other two Somalis — Gurewardher and Abdi Mohammed Umar — were captured several hours later on a so-called mother ship that carried fuel, water and other supplies.
The Nicholas had dimmed its running lights, slowed its speed and made other changes to resemble a cargo ship. No one was injured in the firefight.
The Somalis insisted in court that they were innocent fishermen who had been kidnapped and beaten by pirates, and then forced to attack the Nicholas. The real brigands, the defendants said, escaped on a third boat.
But James R. Theuer, another defense lawyer, said the jury believed the confessions that the five men gave to a Navy investigator several days after their capture, and not their denials in court.
"Frankly, it really came down to the confessions," Theuer said.
The five will be sentenced March 14. Whether the harsh punishment will deter others is unclear. Dozens of pirates have been convicted and jailed in Kenya, the Seychelles, the Netherlands and elsewhere, but attacks in nearby seas have barely slowed.
Somali brigands are holding at least 18 ships for ransom, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau. This month, the owners of a South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream, paid more than $9 million to Somali bandits to free the ship and its crew, an apparent record ransom.