A federal judge in Virginia who oversaw the trial of the highest-ranking pirate ever convicted in a U.S. court filed an opinion Friday that says Congress intended for the definition of piracy to evolve over time when it redefined it in 1819.
U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar filed his opinion four days after he gave Mohammad Saaili Shibin a dozen life sentences for his role as a hostage negotiator in the hijacking of a U.S. yacht and German merchant ship.
Shibin's attorney had argued that he couldn't have committed piracy because he never set out on the high seas. Doumar acknowledged the high seas requirement in U.S. law, but he said the modern international definition of piracy allows those who facilitate or incite pirate attacks to be found guilty of piracy.
Doumar had already denied a request by Shibin's attorney to reconsider dismissing the piracy charges against him, but he felt compelled to chime in on the debate over the definition of piracy.
Exactly what constitutes piracy under U.S. law has been in dispute ever since federal authorities began prosecuting pirates for the first time in the modern era in 2010.
Among other things, defense attorneys in other piracy cases have called the U.S. statute vague. They also have argued that only those who board and rob a ship can be convicted of piracy, based on a 19th century Supreme Court ruling. One federal judge has agreed with them on that point, although an appeals court has ruled otherwise.
Prosecutors argue that under international law, people who attack or facilitate an attack on a ship can be found guilty of piracy, regardless of whether they board and rob the ship or even set out to sea. The international definition of piracy is important because U.S. law refers to piracy "as defined by the law of nations."
Of the 18 men who have pleaded guilty or been convicted of piracy in Virginia in the past two years, Shibin's case is the most unique because he never set out to sea to board a ship. Instead, he acted as a translator who researched hostages from shore to determine how much of a ransom to seek for them.
Shibin attorney James Broccoletti had hoped a July ruling by a federal judge in Washington in another piracy case would sway Doumar's thinking. In that case, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle agreed with Doumar that the U.S. definition of piracy is based upon modern international law. But she said the government had to prove that a person facilitated the acts of piracy while on the high seas to be charged with it.
Doumar wrote that he "respectfully disagreed" with Hueville's ruling.