Eleven suspected pirates were being flown to the United States Thursday to stand trial in alleged attacks on U.S. naval vessels off the coast of Africa, officials said.
The suspects were expected to appear in court in Norfolk, Va., for indictment as early as Friday morning, two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cases publicly.
The 11 have been held on U.S. ships for weeks off Somalia's pirate-infested coast and nearby regions as officials worked to determine whether and where they could be prosecuted and prepare legal charges against them.
The transfer of the case to a U.S. court comes amid discussions about setting up a special international court to try piracy suspects, because a number of countries will not take action against suspected pirates who are turned over to them. Some pirates have been released after capture because no nation could be found to try them.
Question of piracy prosecutions
The question of piracy prosecutions is part of a broader U.S. policy debate over how to deal with the long-lawless nation of Somalia, which has been without a government since 1991 and has become a safe haven for al-Qaida-linked terrorists who control parts of the country.
Off the coast of the violence-racked nation, millions of dollars in ransom are demanded and won by young men traveling in skiffs, armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades and sometimes hopped up on the narcotic plant called qat that is popular with Somalis.
Five of those en route to Virginia Thursday were captured March 31, after the frigate USS Nicholas exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel west of the Seychelles, sinking a skiff and confiscating its mother ship. The other six suspects were captured after they allegedly began shooting at the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland on April 10 about 380 miles off Djibouti, a small nation facing Yemen across the mouth of the Red Sea.
Another 10 pirates remained at sea in Navy custody Thursday, captured in another incident when the destroyer USS McFaul responded to the distress call from a merchant vessel. It was not clear whether those 10 will now be released or handed to over to another country for prosecution, the officials said.
U.S. warships are part of an international flotilla focused on anti-piracy and other maritime protection issues in the region. Other navies also have taken home for trial pirates who attacked their own ships or citizens. But most are reluctant to take back every suspect due to difficulties transporting them, fears they may claim asylum and jurisdiction issues.
Kenya’s court system strained
If a Somali pirate attacks a Liberian-flagged and Egyptian-owned vessel with Filipino and Indian crew onboard and is captured, it's not clear which country should take the lead in prosecuting the suspect.
Kenya, to the south of Somalia, has taken some to its courts but now says pirates are putting too much strain on the country's court system.
Some of those being flown to the U.S. were injured during hijacking incidents on the seas and have received treatment while held by the Navy. One official said that includes one suspect who had a leg amputated.
Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the top U.S. naval officer in Africa and Europe, said last week that the Navy had handed over a packet of evidence on the five alleged to have attacked the USS Nicholas and that it included the pirates' weapons, photographic evidence and proof that small arms fire hit the ship.
It was not known what charges would be placed against the suspects.