WASHINGTON (AP) — For 2½ years, a Somali man has languished in jail, waiting for his trial on piracy charges to begin — even though the judge in the case says he's not a pirate and has concluded that the lengthy pretrial lockup violates his constitutional rights.
"It's embarrassing for a nation committed to the rule of law to have someone sitting in jail for 30 months without a trial," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University who is familiar with the case.
Authorities allege that Ali Mohamed Ali, 51, negotiated a ransom for Somali pirates during a 2008 pirate takeover of a Danish merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. At the time of his 2011 arrest, he was the education minister in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, but he's spent most of his adult life in the United States.
Ali, who faces up to life in prison, has pleaded not guilty. Jury selection in his trial finally began on Thursday. He arrived in the courtroom wearing a sweater over a collared shirt, with a dark sports jacket — in contrast to the orange prison uniform he has worn to the numerous pretrial hearings in the case.
Twice in the last two years, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ordered Ali released pending trial — only to have the appeals court reverse her.
"The government's suggestion that Ali has been in detention for only 'a few months' demonstrates a disregard for Ali's constitutional rights, as well as the depressing reality of conditions at the D.C. Jail," she wrote in releasing him last month. Huvelle added that Ali had recently spent 10 days in unwarranted solitary confinement, which "highlights the extremely stressful conditions that can accompany pretrial detention."
Ali was out of jail for less than 24 hours last month before the appeals court reversed Huvelle and he was ordered back.
Turley, the constitutional law expert, said the U.S. "is now viewed as something of a rogue nation by civil libertarians — the biggest example being Guantanamo, where some detainees have been held for more than a decade without being charged with a crime. Cases like Ali's are fueling that perception of the U.S."
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
At Thursday's jury selection, Huvelle instructed potential jurors not to read or watch anything about piracy, including the new Tom Hanks movie, "Captain Phillips," a docudrama about a different ship hijacking by Somali pirates that took place in 2009.
According to the government indictment in the Ali case, pirates seized the M/V CEC Future in November 2008, and Ali boarded the boat a couple of days later. The government alleges that on behalf of the pirates, Ali, an English speaker, communicated with officials from Clipper Group, the ship's owner, and demanded a $7 million ransom. Clipper eventually paid $1.7 million to the pirates, and a separate ransom to Ali of $75,000, the indictment says. The pirates' siege lasted more than two months.
Ali was lured to the U.S. on a bogus invitation to attend an education conference in Raleigh, N.C., and was arrested in April 2011, when he landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
"Those who negotiate and collect these ransoms are every bit as responsible for these crimes as the pirates who commandeer the ships," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said at the time.
Ali's defense attorneys argue that he intended to board the ship as an "observer," as some Western journalists were trying to do at the time, but the pirates refused unless he also acted as their translator.
"Once he made contact with the owners of this company (Clipper), he was essentially a prisoner," one of Ali's lawyers, Matthew J. Peed, said at a hearing last year. Peed said Ali didn't receive any part of the ransom, and said the payment he received from Clipper came two weeks after the siege ended.
"Mr. Ali never demanded or asked for payment for himself from Clipper," Peed said.
At the same hearing, prosecutor Brenda J. Johnson said Ali was "hired" by the pirates because he was an English speaker who could communicate with the ship's owners, and said he was supposed to get money for his role.
The defense has used statements from the captain of the ship and the CEO of the company to try to portray Ali as an advocate for the hostages. Andrey Nozhkin, the ship's captain, said in a statement that Ali "put himself between the pirates and the crew to protect the crew from mistreatment by the pirates."
Per Gullestrup, the CEO of the Clipper Group who was involved with negotiating the release of the ship, wrote in a statement that his company had no reason to believe Ali was part of the pirate team that hijacked the vessel, and credited him with intervening with the pirates to ensure the best possible conditions for the crew.
Both Nozhkin and Gullestrup were on the government's list of potential witnesses announced at Thursday's jury selection.
Huvelle has often expressed skepticism about the government's case. In her ruling releasing Ali last month, she wrote that while it will be up to a jury to decide whether Ali had the criminal intent to support a charge of aiding and abetting piracy, "there is certainly no dispute that Ali is not, under any common definition of the term, a 'pirate.'"
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