A Somali teenager identified as the apparent leader of the outlaws who tried to seize the Maersk Alabama was held on charges including piracy and hostage-taking conspiracy in Manhattan federal court Tuesday amid a dispute over whether he is old enough to be tried as an adult.
Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, who was flown into New York late Monday, faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of the piracy charge, which legal experts say is rare. He smiled brightly during a "perp walk" for cameras Monday night, but was described by his lawyers Tuesday as scared and confused, and appeared gaunt and serious in court as U.S. District Judge Andrew Peck read him his rights.
"I understand," said Muse, wearing a blue jumpsuit with a large white bandage wrapped around his hand and speaking quietly through an interpreter. "I have no money."
Muse was the sole surviving Somali from the band of four pirates thwarted by the Maersk Alabama crew in an attempt to take over the commercial freighter in the Indian Ocean two weeks ago. Wounded and taken hostage by the ship's crew and then released, he was aboard the USS Bainbridge receiving treatment under a truce when three other pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips hostage in a lifeboat were shot dead by snipers.
Prosecutors said Tuesday Muse admitted at least three times to being over the minimum age of 18 for being tried as an adult in federal court. On other occasions, however, he said he was younger, and his court-appointed lawyers told Peck that Muse's father told them he was 15. Separately, his mother told The Associated Press he was 16.
In federal courts, juveniles can't be tried as adults without a judge finding it appropriate, and complaints and proceedings against juveniles are not supposed to be public. Peck closed the courtroom for a hearing on the age question, but after testimony from an FBI agent and from Muse's father by speakerphone from Somalia, he concluded the father's claim was not credible and reopened the hearing.
"The court has determined that Mr. Muse is not a juvenile," Peck said, noting Muse himself had apologized to an FBI agent for claiming he was younger than 18, and the father had appeared to confuse the age of two of his sons.
Muse's lawyers, federal public defenders Deirdre von Dornum and Phil Weinstein, said they would continue to pursue the age issue as part of Muse's defense. They told reporters that there were signs that Muse might have been an unwilling participant in the piracy plot.
The richly detailed criminal complaint, however, included allegations that Muse was wielding a gun in the initial takeover of the ship, that he was the first to board, ordered the captain to stop the ship, demanded a phone number for the ship's owners, and took $30,000 from the ship's safe. "Muse and his fellow pirates attacked an American crew and its American captain on a ship flying an American flag," U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin in a statement. "Now, Muse has been brought to face justice in an American courtroom."
This story was supplemented with wire service reports.