By Tara McKelvey
Three Somalis are on trial for piracy in Norfolk, Virginia, the home of the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet.
Abukar Osman Beyle sat in a federal courtroom in Norfolk on a recent summer morning. The place was quiet, except for a jingle of keys and jewellery as men and women, all potential jurors, filed through a doorway.
Beyle, 22, is on trial with two other men, Ahmed Muse Salad and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, for piracy and murder. At one point, Beyle looked back at the potential jurors in the room.
If found guilty of piracy, Beyle and the other Somalis could be sentenced to death, under piracy laws introduced in 1819. Murder is also a capital offence in Virginia.
The trial is expected to last through the summer and is part of an international attempt to abolish crimes on the high seas.
After the members of the jury were chosen, witnesses began to describe what happened on 18 February 2011. Working with 18 other men, Beyle allegedly seized a 58-ft (17.7m) sloop called Quest that had been sailing in the Indian Ocean.
They then took four Americans on board hostage, the court heard.
There was Jean Adam, 66, and her husband Scott Adam, 70 – a former producer who worked on classic TV show The Love Boat – Phyllis Patricia Macay, 59, and Robert Riggle, 67.
On the witness stand in the Norfolk courthouse, Elizabeth Sem, the daughter of Scott Adam, described her father. “My dad had a lifelong dream to sail around the world,” she said.
After taking control of the sloop, the men held her father and his friends in a wheel house for four days, the court heard.
The US Navy tried to rescue them, arriving with the USS Enterprise and other vessels, but the situation quickly became chaotic.
One of the witnesses, a convicted pirate named Jilani Abdiali, recalled mayhem on the ship – and how one of the men on trial, Salad, fired a weapon at the Adams, as well as at Macay and Riggle.
“He was not shooting just one by one,” said Abdiali, according to¬†the Virginian-Pilot. “He was spraying.”
The defendants shot all four of the Americans to death, the prosecution claims, and their bodies were riddled with bullets. The defendants deny they fired the shots.
Four Somalis also died, and the others were arrested and brought to Virginia. Most were sentenced to life in prison.
In 2011, the year Beyle clambered aboard the Quest, Somalis hijacked 27 other vessels. Fourteen vessels were hijacked in 2012, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and so far in 2013 – two.
The decline in Somali piracy is attributed to trials such as the one in Norfolk, as well as to ramped-up international efforts in the region. Navies patrol the Indian Ocean, for example, and armed guards watch over ships.
Unfortunately, however,¬†a new report¬†says that seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea may now be in more danger than those who are near Somalia.
The stubborn nature of piracy makes the Norfolk trial especially important, highlighting the issue of how best to fight piracy, whether through aggressive prosecution and imposition of the death penalty and patrolling the high seas – or tackling underlying causes such as poverty.
The death penalty is woven into the US legal system. More than 1,300 people have been put to death in the US since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reaffirmed capital punishment. Yet the Norfolk case is the first death penalty prosecution against pirates in the US.
The US, Yemen and a small number of other countries impose the death penalty for piracy.
In one documented case, Russians shoved a group of pirates on an inflatable boat into the open sea, which was “a death sentence”, says Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University.
In contrast European courts do not impose death – and tend to sentence Somali pirates to less than 10 years, says University College London’s Douglas Guilfoyle, who specialises in the international law of piracy.
The Norfolk courthouse is located near a Greyhound bus station and Bob’s Gun Shop, and the city itself is steeped in the military. The US Navy’s Atlantic fleet is harboured here, along with the Enterprise, the ship that attempted to save the four Americans in the Indian Ocean.
When Beyle arrived in Norfolk in 2011, he was slight-looking. His lawyers say he was a victim of violence as a child and had suffered from the poverty and chaos that is endemic in Somalia.
Some experts believe resources to fight piracy should be invested not in the penal system but in reducing hunger and rebuilding failed institutions – “the political and socioeconomic root causes of piracy”, wrotes World Bank economist Quy-Toan Do in¬†a 2013 report.
Beyle, who is wearing a blue shirt and a jacket, has put on weight over the past two years. “Prison food,” says someone in the courtroom.
For some pirates, incarceration is a welcome break from life in Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world. “They get three square meals a day, they can study,” says Scharf. “It’s kind of like going to university.”
Prison may not be a deterrent for them, but death is. “They understand that,” Scharf says.
Some experts say that the only problem with the Norfolk trial and the death penalty is the process taking so long.
“It’s like a child steals a piece of candy and two years later you slap his wrist,” says Kevin Doherty, who helps to place armed guards on ships.
He believes the navy’s attempt to rescue the hostages was a more effective way to send a message. “There were actual KIAs,” he says, using an acronym for killed in action. “That had a greater impact on the pirates’ thought process.”
The type of punishment is determined by the place where it is administered. Because they are on trial in Virginia, Beyle and the two other Somalis are confronted with the possibility of a death sentence.
“America has always taken a very strong view with respect to piracy,” says Capt Pottengal Mukundan, the London-based director of the International Maritime Bureau. “It’s simply what they have to face.”