Somali pirate Abduwali Muse was sentenced to 33 years and nine months in prison for hijacking the container ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean in 2009.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York handed down the sentence today. Muse pleaded guilty in May to two counts of hijacking maritime vessels, two of kidnapping and two of hostage taking. Prosecutors said he led pirates who captured the Maersk Alabama and held its captain, Richard Phillips, for five days.
The sentence is at the top of a range in an arrangement between Muse’s lawyers and prosecutors. The defense asked for the minimum, 27 years. The government sought the maximum because of what it called the “extraordinarily depraved and violent nature of Muse’s crimes.”
“Today’s sentence makes it clear that piracy on the high seas is a crime against the international community that will not be tolerated,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
Muse and his cohorts began their piracy spree in March 2009, boarding two other ships in the Indian Ocean and taking hostages before boarding the Maersk Alabama, a 500-foot U.S.- flagged container ship headed to Kenya from Djibouti with a load of food aid for the region, on April 8, prosecutors said.
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, Muse boarded the Maersk Alabama, fired at Phillips and forced him to stop the ship, demanding $30,000, prosecutors said. The pirates agreed to leave after Muse was captured by members of the crew, then took Phillips hostage when he attempted to show them how to use a motorized lifeboat and held him in the vessel for four days.
Muse was taken into custody after snipers from the USS Bainbridge, a U.S. Navy missile destroyer, shot and killed his three accomplices, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation brought Muse to New York.
His attorneys, Fiona Doherty and Philip Weinstein, argued that their client grew up in poverty in Somalia, sometimes hunting through garbage for food, and worked in fishing communities in the coastal area known as Puntland, where pirate gangs have their roots, they said.
“There’s no doubt that the conditions in Somalia that he experienced up until the time he was arrested will continue to have a powerful effect on him,” Doherty said.
His attorneys have argued that Muse was just 16 at the time of the hijacking, although a U.S. magistrate judge has rejected that claim and prosecutors have said that he told one of his hostages he was 24.
“The defendant has used his youthful appearance as a tool for leniency” since his arrest, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said during today’s hearing.
Before he was sentenced, Muse, speaking through a translator, said he was “very sorry” and asked for forgiveness from those he harmed and the U.S. government, saying he was “deluded” by people who were smarter and more powerful.
“I got my hands into something that was more powerful than me,” said Muse, who tried to commit suicide several times since his arrest, according to his defense attorneys.
Colin Wright, 44, of Galveston, Texas, who was the third officer on the Maersk Alabama that day, testified during today’s hearing that the incident permanently changed him and asked the judge to sentence Muse to the maximum penalty possible.
“It was a very, very scary experience,” said Wright, who detailed being shot at during the hijacking and listening to bullets ring off the bulkhead next to him.
Preska took off her glasses and appeared to get emotional while reading letters from victims including Phillips, who said he wrote on behalf of all merchant mariners asking “not for revenge or brutality, only justice.”
Piracy “affects us in our daily lives and it is not a Disneyland-esque problem,” Phillips wrote. “These are not Johnny Depps.”
The judge said that a longer sentence was necessary to deter piracy.
“General deterrence of this type of conduct is the most important sentencing factor,” Preska said.
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, 09-cr-00512, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).