RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The U.S. government is appealing a federal judge's decision to dismiss piracy charges against five Somali defendants accused in an April attack on a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Africa.
Prosecutors signaled their intent to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a filing Friday in federal court in Norfolk, where the five are scheduled for trial. They also are seeking to delay the start of the trial, scheduled for Oct. 19, while they seek to have the piracy ruling overturned by the Richmond appeals court.
U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson on Aug. 17 dismissed the most serious charge against the Somali nationals, concluding the government failed to make the case that the men's alleged actions met the legal definition of piracy.
The piracy count carries a mandatory term of life in prison. The men still face seven other charges, including plundering and firearms counts.
The five are accused in the April 10 attack on the USS Ashland, a 610-foot dock landing ship. The men, who were in a skiff, claimed they were ferrying refugees.
The skiff was destroyed by one of the ship's 25mm cannons. One occupant of the skiff was killed and several others were injured.
The defendants did not board the ship or commit robbery at sea, which defense lawyers said were necessary actions to justify the piracy charge.
Jackson agreed that the government "failed to establish that any unauthorized acts of violence or aggression committed on the high seas constitutes piracy as defined by the law of nations."
He also said prosecutors were attempting to use "an enormously broad standard" that would contradict a nearly 200-year-old Supreme Court decision, United States v. Smith, defining piracy.
Six men were originally charged in the alleged Ashland attack.
One of the Ashland defendants, Jama Idle Ibrahim, pleaded guilty in late August to piracy-related charges. He said he intended to attack a merchant vessel to hold it for ransom and discovered that he was attacking a Navy ship instead.
Ibrahim also pleaded guilty Wednesday in Washington, D.C., federal court to conspiracy to commit piracy in a November 2008 attack on a Danish ship on which the crew was held hostage for 71 days.
The Ashland defendants were among 11 delivered to Norfolk in April after attacks on Virginia-based U.S. Navy ships patrolling pirate-infested waters off Africa.
Five other Somali men are being prosecuted separately for the alleged assault on the frigate USS Nicholas on April 1, west of the Seychelles.
A judge in Norfolk heard pretrial arguments in the Nicholas case on Thursday and Friday, including a similar defense motion to have the piracy charged dismissed. He did not immediately rule on that motion.
The 10 remaining Somali defendants have pleaded not guilty and are being held until trials this fall. The remaining charges carry terms of 10, 20 and 30 years.
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