WASHINGTON — When is a pirate not a pirate?
A federal court may provide an answer in a trial that opened in Washington this week of a Somali official who helped win release of a hijacked Danish cargo ship and crew for $1.7 million ransom, but who played no part in seizing the vessel or holding it for 71 days.
U.S. courts have convicted dozens of Somali pirates in recent years, part of a vast multinational effort that has helped curtail the rampant hijacking of oil tankers, freighters, sailboats and other ships off the Horn of Africa.
But the federal judge in the latest trial says the Justice Department went too far by charging Ali Mohamed Ali with piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Defense lawyers say Somali tribal leaders sought Ali's help because he spoke fluent English, a byproduct of living 26 years in the United States. After the ransom was parachuted to the pirates, the cargo ship, the CEC Future, and its 13 mostly Russian crew members were released unharmed in January 2009.
In April 2011, Ali was acting director of the Education Ministry in Somaliland, a semiautonomous region in northern Somalia, when U.S. authorities lured him to American soil by inviting him to an education conference. He was arrested when his flight landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
He then began 30 months in detention that U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, the trial judge, said "raises serious due process concerns" after a prosecutor told Ali during a pretrial hearing, "No one thinks you're a pirate."
In a later hearing, Huvelle scolded the prosecutors for pursuing the piracy charge, calling it "government overreaching."
"This gentleman doesn't merit mandatory life" in prison, she said, according to a transcript.
Legal experts say the prosecution is unusual because Ali acted as an intermediary and translator, not as an armed pirate.
"None of this is to say that he's a perfectly lovely guy, but it's a very, very odd and ambitious prosecution," said Tara Helfman, a law professor at Syracuse University who has followed the case.
"These negotiators are used all the time," she added. "They're called upon not only by ship owners but also by insurance companies to secure the release of hostages. That's what makes this very strange."
Federal prosecutors argued in opening statements Monday that even though Ali didn't seize the CEC Future or carry a weapon, he was key to the pirates' scheme to secure a ransom.
"He was the most important gun on board," said Julieanne Himelstein, an assistant U.S. attorney. "Because that was the gun that got them the money."
Over the last five years, a coalition of more than 60 countries and organizations has increased naval patrols in the Indian Ocean, conducted airstrikes against pirate dens on land and jailed more than 1,100 suspected hijackers. While the number of attacks has dropped, pirates still netted $32 million in ransoms last year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, an advocacy group based in Colorado.
To crack down further, U.S. authorities aren't just chasing the pirates, who are mostly impoverished young fishermen. Officials increasingly target the transnational network of crime bosses, human traffickers, money launderers and others who bankroll the pirate trade and grab most of the profits.
"This case shows our resolve to prosecute pirates and those who profit from crimes on the high seas," Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in announcing Ali's arrest in 2011. "Those who negotiate and collect these ransoms are every bit as responsible for these crimes as the pirates who commandeer the ships."
Last year, a federal judge in Norfolk, Va., sentenced a Somali man, Mohammad Saaili Shibin, to 12 life sentences for negotiating ransoms for two hijacked ships, including a yacht owned by a Marina Del Rey couple. The two couples aboard the yacht, all Americans, were killed by pirates in February 2011. Justice Department officials called Shibin the highest-ranking pirate ever brought to the United States.
Lawyers for Ali, a thin, bespectacled man in his early 50s who wore an argyle sweater to court, described him in far different terms.
According to defense attorney Matthew Peed, Ali came to the United States in 1981 as a 19-year-old student of management economics at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. He later settled in the Washington area and offered his Somali and Arabic language skills to Department of Homeland Security officials after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, but returned to Somaliland in 2007 for family reasons, Peed said.
Ali was brought aboard the CEC Future as a negotiator three days after it was hijacked in November 2008. Prosecutors say he first demanded $7 million ransom for the crew's release. He later agreed to $1.7 million but then secured an additional $75,000 "for himself," Himelstein told jurors.
Ali's lawyers say the extra money was for the hijackers' bosses on land, not for him.
After the incident, Ali corresponded regularly with Per Gullestrup, chief executive of the Danish company that owned the CEC Future, and, according to court documents, he was contacted by an FBI agent and offered his help to U.S. officials "in any way and any fashion."
But when a TV documentary featuring Ali aired in Somalia in September 2010, Somaliland security forces arrested him, accusing him of being a pirate. He was freed, but months later he accepted the invitation to visit the United States, where he was arrested.
In addition to piracy, Ali is charged with aiding and abetting pirates, conspiracy to commit piracy and hostage-taking, all of which carry heavy prison sentences. His trial is expected to last several weeks.