Armed with AK-47s, a group of Somali men in a small skiff opened fire in 2010 on a 609-foot Navy ship off the coast of Africa.
Prosecutors argue the men were pirates who mistook the amphibious dock landing ship for a commercial vessel.
Defense attorneys, however, claim they were merely lost at sea and trying to get the ship’s attention.
A jury trial for five of the men started Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. Over the next week, prosecutors are expected to call to the stand sailors who were on the Virginia Beach-based Ashland at the time of the incident and a Somali man who was on the skiff and is now cooperating with authorities.
Jama Idle Ibrahim, also known as Jaamac Ciidle, pleaded guilty in August 2010 to attempting to plunder a vessel and two related charges. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison but could have his sentence reduced.
The federal case against the Somali men has been pending since shortly after the April 10, 2010, incident in the Gulf of Aden.
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson dismissed piracy charges against the men on the grounds they did not board the Ashland or try to steal anything. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1820 defined piracy as robbery at sea.
In 2012, however, a federal appeals court overturned the judge’s ruling. The appellate court said an armed attack on a U.S. vessel can be considered piracy even if no one boards or robs the ship.
In opening statements Wednesday, prosecutors said the men set out to hijack a ship in the Gulf of Aden and hold its crew for ransom. Under cover of night, they snuck up behind the Ashland thinking it was a commercial vessel, said attorney Benjamin Lucas Hatch.
Before dawn, one of the men pulled out a gun and started firing.
“They didn’t mean to attack the U.S. Navy, but that is exactly what they did,” Hatch said.
Sailors on the Ashland responded with force. They fired a 25 mm cannon at the skiff – killing one Somali man and injuring several others. The skiff caught fire, prompting sailors to launch a rescue mission.
Hatch said the men spoke to one another while they waited to be pulled from the water and came up with a cover story in the process. A hook ladder, which pirates commonly use to board cargo ships they capture in the Gulf of Aden, was found in the burned-out skiff, he said.
Defense attorneys acknowledged one of the men on the boat fired a gun but argued they were only trying to get the sailors’ attention. Robert Rigney, one of the Somalis’ court-appointed attorneys, said the men were on their way back from smuggling a group of 80 refugees to Yemen when their ship became disabled.
“It’s not unusual to fire a weapon to signal someone,” Rigney said.
The defense attorneys attacked the credibility of Ibrahim, who they argued was willing to say anything to help himself and reduce his own prison sentence. They said it would make no sense for pirates to attack a Navy ship.
“These guys in a little skiff are going to take over the USS Ashland?” asked Rigney. “I’m not sure the National Enquirer magazine would buy this script.”
Bruce Sams, another defense attorney, said the men had no time to concoct a cover story. He said some were badly burned and wounded; that they were too busy trying to stay alive to worry about post-capture interviews.
“It is totally unbelievable that that would occur,” he said.
In addition to the attack on the Ashland, three of the men also face charges related to a February 2010 incident involving the Chatham of the British navy. During that incident, prosecutors claim the men went to sea for purposes of capturing another vessel but were intercepted by the British vessel.
If convicted of the piracy charges, the men face mandatory life sentences.