Nine Somali men accused of attacking two U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Africa pleaded not guilty Friday to piracy, plundering and weapons charges.
U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Bradford Stillman ordered the nine held until their trials, tentatively scheduled for July. The government is expected to seek September trial dates.
Of 11 Somali men indicted last week on U.S. charges, one entered a not guilty plea Wednesday and another is scheduled to be arraigned next week.
The nine men arraigned Friday were scheduled to enter pleas on Wednesday but attorneys representing them said they needed more time to explain the government's accusations with an interpreter present. Some said they had spent only 30 minutes with their client and were not confident they understood U.S. court procedures.
None of the defendants speak English. All face mandatory life terms, if convicted.
Attorneys said they not only faced a language barrier, but the cultural shock the men faced after they were detained by the Navy and taken to the U.S.
"My client doesn't read or speak any language, much less English," William J. Holmes, who represents Gabul Abdullahi Ali, said before Friday's hearing. "It's like being picked up and being taken to another planet."
Questioned by Stillman, the defendants listed their ages as 18 to 32 and all but one said they had no education at all.
"I have never even seen a school," Abdi Wali Dire told Stillman through an interpreter.
Stillman seemed incredulous when one of the men said he was 18, though he appeared much older. When pressed, the defendant said he did not know his birth date.
Each man is charged with piracy, attacks to plunder a vessel, assault with a dangerous weapon, and other weapons counts. Piracy carries a mandatory life sentence, while the other charges carry penalties of 10 to 35 years.
"I did not commit any crime," Ali told Stillman when asked his plea.
Five of the men were captured March 31, after the frigate USS Nicholas exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel west of the Seychelles.
The other six 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. Two of the accused have visible physical injuries, the result of the exchange with the Navy, according to the government.
The government has said the defendants mistakenly went after the Nicholas believing it was a merchant ship. A prosecutor said the government had eyewitnesses — sailors — and forensic evidence linking the suspects to the crime.
The Ashland and Nicholas, both based in Virginia within 20 miles of the courthouse, were part of an international flotilla protecting shipping in the region.
The 11 had been held on U.S. ships for weeks off Somalia's pirate-infested coast as officials decided whether and where they could be prosecuted.
The Somali mission to the United Nations said the suspects should be tried by a regional or international tribunal, not in a U.S. courtroom.
All 11 defendants are being held in a regional jail about 30 minutes outside of Norfolk. As they had Wednesday, the men complained about their diet at the jail. All are Muslim and said they have been served pork.
A U.S. marshal said the men were asked their dietary preferences, and they responded by asking for camel or buffalo meat. He said buffalo had been interpreted as beef, which has been served to the defendants.