Piracy: An Exploding Myth

Picture from US Today News.


On Monday, a U.S. federal judge ordered a Somali pirate, Mohammad Saaili Shibin, to serve twelve life sentences in prison for his role in the hijacking of a German merchant vessel and a U.S. yacht. The judge also claimed that he was lucky he did not get the death penalty, even though no death penalty-eligible charges were brought against him. Shibin declined to make any statements before he was sentenced. Shibin is considered by U.S. authorities to be the highest-ranking pirate they have ever captured. Shibin also had direct ties to those who finance pirate operations in Somalia.

There were four Americans aboard “The Quest” who were shot to death by pirates off the coast of Africa in 2011. The crew members on the other vessel were tortured to obtain higher ransom in 2010. Prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty against the three men charged with shooting the Americans. Eleven other pirates who boarded the Quest have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to life in prison.

The yacht owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, California, along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks, despite a regular patrol of international warships. Negotiations with a U.S. Navy ship were taking place when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at them and seconds later shots were fired aboard the yacht. By the time Navy SEALs boarded the boat, the Americans had already been shot to death.

U.S. authorities are hoping these sentences will send a strong message to pirates to stay away from American ships. Shibin was convicted earlier this year on the fifteen charges he faced, including piracy, kidnapping, and hostage-taking. Out of the twelve life sentences, ten of them will run concurrently while the other two were ordered to serve consecutively. Shibin was also ordered to pay in restitution in the amount of $5.4 million.

After sentencing U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, said, “I think this case explodes the myth, if still it exists out there, that pirates are some kind of romantic swashbuckling characters from Hollywood summer movies. This case showed that pirates are brutal, greedy, reckless, desperate criminals who will kidnap, torture and ultimately kill hostages in pursuit of their financial greed”.

Should Shibin be considered for the death penalty, even though he did not technically kill anyone? Is it true that we still think of piracy as a fallacy? Has wool been pulled over our eyes from watching movies such as “Peter Pan” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”? These movies romanticize pirates and cause us to view them in an almost funny light, when in reality they are thieves and murderers. Is the fact that we do not take piracy seriously causing it to become a more severe and prevalent problem


SOURCE: Law.com


  1. I think that if Shibin is the mastermind behind the pirate attacks, then he should be held accountable for the deaths because he was the head conspirator. If co-conspirators in robberies can be held accountable for murders that occur during the crime then Shibin should be just as guilty as those who pulled the trigger. One thing I never quite understood about the American judicial system is why the guilty are sentenced to concurrent life sentences and then a consecutive one? If you are going to send a person away for life, why go through the theatrics of saying they’re going to spend two lifetimes in jail. I know it is symbolic, but is it really necessary?

    I am surprised, not that there are pirates, but the brutality that they use in order to take what they are after. It seems like it should be easier to track and eliminate pirates with the current technological capabilities that are available today. The sentence handed to Shibin should act as a deterrent to future pirates, however, just like the harsh penalties for murder, there will always be people willing to take the chance.

  2. I agree with Mr. Masi that it seems much more symbolic than practical to assign multiple life sentences. In regard to tracking these pirates though, the problem seems to be more that when we talk about piracy, we believe that pirates would be more easily identifiable than they actually are. Their boat would have blacks sails or some kind of classically identifiable characteristic. Something that just makes it clear that a vessel is a pirate ship and not just a regular ship. This is not the case and cannot be the case given the definition of piracy. The International Chamber of Commerce and the International Maritime Bureau have defined piracy as:

    “An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act … This definition thus covers actual or attempted attacks whether the ship is berthed, at anchor or at sea. Petty thefts are excluded, unless the thieves are armed.”

    It would be difficult then to tell from a distance if a ship is a pirate ship or not because that is dependent on whether the people on board are pirates. According to the definition above, being a pirate is essentially being a thief and trespasser on the water and it is difficult to tell just from looking at someone if he or she is a thief. One could probably tell from the kind of equipment on the boat whether or not the vessel is used as a pirate ship, but it would be completely impracticable to have the Navy spot a boat a long distance away, go to it, board it, inspect it for pirate gear and then repeat the process for every boat it sees. However, this problem is not going away, so my question is what policies should be placed in regards to the law on international waters in order to make if more efficient to catch pirates?

  3. I am not sure that Shibin deserves the death penalty. The International Community has a vested interest in a death-penalty-free-society. The United States should not impose its municipal legal system’s every rule on a crime that was committed in international territory. Having caught this obviously dangerous, criminally minded pirate was in itself a meaningful step toward making sure that these acts do not go unpunished. Twelve life sentences is plenty of time for a foreign-born, international criminal to serve in an American penitentiary.

    If Shibin was the murderer then he should have been eligible for the death penalty; Because he was not, there is little utility in going out-on-a-limb to attempt a domestic justification for an international problem. America would be wise to check its tone in light of the global information war that is trending today.

    The Arab Spring Countries, Syria, and most recently Egypt, again, have shown us the power of information in today’s globalized world. Armies have been summoned with the power of Facebook and Twitter; there are few bytes that do not make it around the world and back in time to rouse a nation of activists. Whether you agree or not, today’s global climate demands that countries tread carefully when dealing with other nations, because people are watching, waiting for a mistake. The death penalty here would be a mistake because we are unsure of what further criminal acts it will inspire.

    Al Shabaab is a well-known Al-Qeada affiliate which has been in de facto control of Somalia for over 10 years. If wind of an execution of one of their pirate friends was to get to the Shabaab it could mean another problem in the region. A problem that the United States does not need at a time when it is already contending with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria that begs for U.S. attention, and a volatile Iran. I fear that putting Shibin to death would have been an inefficient foreign policy move given all that is at stake abroad.

    To put a man who has not taken the life of another man to death is wrong as far as general international legal principles are concerned. Neither the Hague, nor the ICJ sentence people to death; and the United States should refrain from doing so here. A concurrent and consecutive life sentences are sufficient to send a message to the international pirate community that U.S. means business. There is no need to risk provoking an enemy unnecessarily at this time, since America already has so much at stake. A resort to the death penalty for those who have actually killed others is permissible, but Shibin should be exactly where he is: In jail, for life.

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