WASHINGTON — A federal jury Tuesday found a Somali man who acted as a negotiator for pirates aboard a hijacked ship not guilty of piracy, but had not yet reached a verdict on two lesser charges.
Ali Mohamed Ali, 51, who would have faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted of piracy, smiled and embraced one of his lawyers after the verdict was announced. He then removed his glasses and dabbed his eyes. A friend in the courtroom sobbed. Ali has been held in a D.C. jail for more than 2½ years.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle told the jurors, who began deliberations last Wednesday, to continue deliberating on two remaining charges of hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking. Both of those charges carry potential, but not mandatory life sentences, and Ali is unlikely to receive a life sentence even if the jury convicts him on those charges.
Ali negotiated a ransom for Somali pirates during a 2008 pirate takeover of a Danish merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. At the time of his 2011 arrest, he was the education minister in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, but he has spent most of his adult life in the United States.
Pirates seized the M/V CEC Future in November 2008, and Ali boarded the boat a couple of days later. An English speaker, he communicated the demands of the pirates with officials from Clipper Group, the ship’s owner. The pirates initially demanded a $7 million ransom, but settled for $1.7 million at the end of the more than two-monthlong siege.
The key issue in the trial was whether Ali was an advocate for the pirates or just a translator doing the best he could in a situation not of his own making. Jurors heard Ali talking on recorded phone calls with a negotiator, and also with Clipper Group’s CEO, Per Gullestrup. At one point, Ali declares, “I am the negotiator” and demands that all calls go through him. But the calls also show a friendly, conversational banter, with Gullestrup dropping Ali’s name the way one does with a longtime acquaintance, and Gullestrup testified that he built up a level of trust with Ali.
Ali’s lawyers sought to paint him as a friend of the U.S. government. Keith Barwick, an agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that 10 years ago Ali approached him with information about a company he was working for in the U.S. The government put the business under investigation, and Ali became a confidential informant. The company had been selling counterfeit products, such as purses and watches, and Ali’s work helped lead to 10 convictions and over $1 million in seized merchandise and money. Ali received $25,000 for his work from the government, Barwick said, adding that he was a good source.
Jurors also heard Ali telling a negotiator for the Clipper Group that the pirates are not bluffing and the time for negotiating was over. “Let them think about the crew also, otherwise they can lose not only the vessel but the crew also,” he says on the call.
But the ship’s captain, Andrey Nozhkin, who also participated in the call, testified that Ali whispered a comforting word to him after the call was over: “Bluffing.”
In his closing argument, defense attorney Matthew J. Peed, of the firm Clinton Brook &Peed, told jurors to ask themselves whether Ali wanted to bring about piracy and hostage-taking of the ship. He said that Ali never carried a gun, let crew members call their families and tried to help the hostages.
But prosecutor Julieanne Himelstein said Ali was guilty the second he called Clipper and demanded money for the hostages’ release.
“You don’t ask for one cent for a human being,” she said.
The trial coincided with the release of the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips,” a docudrama about a different hijacking by Somali pirates that took place in 2009. Huvelle instructed jurors to not see the movie.
Ali was arrested in April 2011 after being lured to the U.S. on a bogus invitation to attend an education conference in Raleigh, N.C.
Twice in the last two years Huvelle has ordered Ali released pending trial — only to have the appeals court reverse her. When she released him in September, Huvelle concluded that the lengthy pretrial lockup violates his constitutional rights, and wrote, “there is certainly no dispute that Ali is not, under any common definition of the term, a ‘pirate’.”