Maersk Pirate Abduwali Muse Deserves 27-Year Sentence, His Lawyers Say

Abduwali Muse, a Somali pirate who pleaded guilty to hijacking the container ship Maersk Alabama, should get 27 years in prison when he is sentenced this month, his lawyers said, citing his youth and poverty.

Muse admitted in May to two counts of hijacking maritime vessels, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of hostage taking. He faces 27 years to 33 years and nine months in prison under a range agreed to by his lawyers and the U.S.

“The temptations of piracy were overwhelming for Abduwali,” his lawyers, Fiona Doherty and Philip Weinstein, said in papers filed today in federal court in Manhattan. “He had so little to lose. Without any real status or education, he had no means of creating a stable life for himself.”

Muse was born in 1993 and was just 16 years old at the time of the hijacking, according to defense lawyers. He was only one of a group of “hired hands,” and “poverty was the sole motivation behind Abduwali’s involvement in this case,” the lawyers said.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16 by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, according to the filing. A U.S. magistrate earlier rejected Muse’s claim that he was underage. Muse told one of his hostages that he was 24 years old, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said last year.

Prosecutors allege Muse was the leader of the group of pirates who overtook the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009, and held its captain captive for five days.

‘Led Hostage-Taking’

Muse was the first pirate to board the ship, fired at Captain Richard Phillips from the deck, forced him to stop the ship, and demanded that he hand over $30,000 from the ship’s safe, prosecutors said in court papers. The group later kept Phillips in a lifeboat off the Somali coast.

He “led the hostage-taking of crew members, threatened them with firearms and in at least one instance, an improvised explosive device,” McGuire said at a hearing in January 2010.

Muse, who prosecutors say was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, was taken aboard the USS Bainbridge for treatment of his injured arm and was apprehended by U.S. sailors when Navy snipers shot dead the three kidnappers in the lifeboat, the military said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation brought him to New York that month.

Prosecutors allege that in March 2009, Muse and others boarded an unidentified ship in the Indian Ocean armed with weapons and took hostages. Muse is accused of threatening to kill everyone aboard with an improvised explosive device if the authorities came.

‘Traumatic’ Deaths

The U.S. says Muse and others left the first ship on a small boat and met a second unidentified ship that was in the area. Muse and three others left that second ship and boarded the Maersk Alabama, prosecutors said.

Muse’s attorneys argue that neither he nor his fellow pirates were holding a gun to Phillips when his co-conspirators were killed. Muse had no idea the ship was a U.S.-flagged vessel, his lawyers said.

“Abduwali believes that he was betrayed by the Navy, who had come to an agreement with him that his companions would not be harmed,” they wrote. “Watching the three men be killed in this context was traumatic for Abduwali.”

Muse grew up poor in Somalia and lived with a variety of family members in childhood, Doherty and Weinstein said. To punish him, his father often left tied to a tree and told him “that a lion would come to eat him,” the lawyers wrote.

He eventually worked as a fishermen in the Somali coast area known as Puntland, “where pirate militias have their roots in the fishing communities,” the lawyers said. He has suffered severe mental-health problems during his two years in U.S. custody, according to the filing.

“We understand that significant punishment is warranted given the suffering endured by the members of the crew,” they said. “However we ask the court to evaluate Abduwali’s involvement in this case with an appreciation for the lack of opportunities available to him.”

U.S. prosecutors haven’t yet filed their sentencing memo to the court. Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, declined to comment.

The Maersk Alabama is owned by Maersk Line Ltd., a Norfolk, Virginia-based unit of Copenhagen-based A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.

The case is U.S. v. Muse, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Patricia Hurtado in New York at pathurtado@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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