Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, left, and Ahmed Muse Salad, right, leave the… (Steve Earley/AP )
A jury on Friday recommended that three Somali pirates receive life sentences for their roles in the fatal shootings of four Americans on a yacht off the coast of Africa, rejecting the government’s attempt to secure the death penalty.
Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle were killed in February 2011 after a tense standoff between the pirates, who had hijacked the yacht, and U.S military and law enforcement personnel.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against three Somali nationals — Ahmed Muse Salad, 25, Abukar Osman Beyle, 20, and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, 29 — who were found guilty of 26 counts, including piracy, kidnapping and multiple firearms offenses.
The case marked the first time capital charges had been brought against Somali pirates in the United States. But jurors in a federal court in Norfolk declined to pursue that option and recommended life sentences. Formal sentencing will take place later.
“Scott Adam, Jean Adam, Phyllis Macay, and Robert Riggle lost their lives and their families lost their loved ones. Nothing can make this right; nothing can make their families whole again — but we hope today’s verdict and sentences will bring some closure to their nightmare that began two years ago on the Indian Ocean,” Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement.
The Adamses had spent several years on a round-the-world voyage and had been joined by their friends Riggle and Macay for the last leg. The four Americans were asleep on Feb. 18, 2011, when a group of 19 pirates boarded the Quest, a 58-foot sailing yacht, in the hope of ransoming their captives and the vessel for millions of dollars.
The Quest was about 200 miles southeast of the Arabian peninsula. The pirates were attempting to take it to Somalia when U.S. warships began shadowing them.
The Navy subsequently told the pirates that they could keep the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but the standoff continued as the Quest neared the Somali coast.
When a Navy vessel maneuvered between the Quest and the shore, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at it. Small-arms fire broke out on the yacht, and Navy SEALs stormed aboard. By the time they did so, all four Americans had been fatally wounded.
George Venizelos, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said the pirates were armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
“Today’s life sentences provide a vigorous deterrent for armed bandits roaming our seas,” Venizelos said.
The case is part of a wider international crackdown on piracy that has led to the prosecution of Somali pirates in 20 countries.
Michael Scharf, a legal expert on Somali piracy and associate dean for global legal studies at Case Western Reserve University, said prosecutors hoped the possibility of a death sentence would serve as a powerful deterrent.
“Most pirates convicted around the world have received relatively light sentences,” he said.
“To the Somalians, who live in miserable conditions, a short sentence in a foreign jail, where they receive three meals a day, exercise and educational training, isn’t much of a deterrent,” Scharf added. “So the U.S. sought the ultimate punishment, the death penalty, to send the strongest possible signal.”
Eleven others who were aboard the yacht have already received life sentences after pleading guilty to piracy in federal court. An onshore negotiator also was captured and given multiple life sentences. Four suspected pirates were killed by the SEALs during the gunfight.
Scharf said he feared that there are likely to be increasing numbers of hostage casualties because Somali pirates’ methods are becoming more violent.
“The next phases of the fight against piracy are going to be bloodier, and there will be more murders of sailors and passengers from many different countries,” he said.