Federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged alleged Somali pirate Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse with hijacking two more ships in addition to the Maersk Alabama last spring in a superseding indictment announced Tuesday.
Muse, whose actual age and eligibility to be tried as an adult have been a central issue since he was brought to New York last year, told crew members in one of the earlier hijackings that he was 24, a prosecutor said during the African's arraignment on the new accusations yesterday afternoon.
The new indictment doesn't identify the two additional ships by name or country of origin, but it says that one of the ships and its captain and crew still are being held hostage by Muse's co-conspirators in the Indian Ocean.
The two additional hijackings occurred in March 2009, the indictment says - just before the attempted seizure of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama in April, an incident in which authorities claim Muse acted as the leader of the pirate gang.
After taking Maersk Capt. Richard Phillips hostage in a lifeboat in a standoff with the USS Bainbridge, the Maersk was captured and three other pirates were killed by Navy snipers during Phillips' rescue.
Muse, who is being held in a federal lockup in Manhattan, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment before U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska.
The new indictment doesn't add any charges to the original 10 counts that include piracy, ship hijacking, kidnapping and conspiracy, but the takeover of the additional two ships is added to the acts alleged as part of the charge of conspiracy to seize a ship by force.
One possible explanation for the new allegations: By including the earlier hijackings in the conspiracy, prosecutors may have paved the way for introducing Muse's alleged admission to one of the crews that he was 24 into evidence.
Muse's defense lawyers say he is a juvenile and cannot be tried as an adult. They also are expected to claim that statements he made in the custody of the Navy, allegedly admitting that he was an adult, should be suppressed because they were involuntary.
"Piracy on the high seas is a threat against the community of nations," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "Today's indictment alleges criminal conduct that extends beyond the attack against the captain and crew of the American-flagged Maersk Alabama. Modern-day pirates who wreak havoc off faraway coasts will be met with modern-day justice in the United States."
Muse faces a sentence of life in prison on eight of the 10 counts if he is convicted.