A federal appeals court in Washington has agreed to expedite a dispute over whether a Somali man accused of serving as a hostage negotiator for pirates should be returned to federal custody and held without bond pending trial.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ordered the man, Ali Mohamed Ali, released this month amid the collapse of the U.S. Justice Department's rare prosecution. Ali, a foreign national, was put into a home confinement and monitoring program after the trial judge dismissed several counts.
The case against Ali marked the first time a person was charged in the District of Columbia for the alleged negotiation and receipt of ransom money. Ali was charged in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in April 2011. If convicted, Ali faces a mandatory life sentence.
Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia are eager to see the return of Ali to federal custody. Government lawyers contend Ali has ample reason to try to leave the country.
DOJ filed emergency court papers (PDF) Friday in the appeals court, arguing that Huvelle's release order was "in disregard of the significant facts pointing to the flight risks presented by Ali."
The charges against Ali stem from an incident in Nov. 2008 in which pirates, according to DOJ, commandeered a Danish-owned merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. There were no American victims.
Prosecutors contend Ali boarded the ship after its seizure and served as a ransom negotiator. The pirates received $1.7 million in ransom, according to DOJ. Ali was arrested last year at Dulles International Airport.
Huvelle this month dismissed three counts against Ali, including conspiracy to commit piracy and conspiracy to commit hostage taking. The judge narrowed an aiding and abetting piracy charge.
"There is no evidence that this gentleman ever participated directly in any kind of violence," Huvelle said in court last week. "Whether you decide legally or not that a negotiator on behalf of pirates ought to face mandatory life is something that doesn't necessarily mean that he should be a risk of flight."
Prosecutors said, among other things, that Huvelle had an "insufficient evidentiary basis" on which to release Ali. There is no condition other than federal pretrial detention that will assure Ali's appearance and safety of the community, prosecutors said. Ali does not have family in the area.
Ali "unquestionably is charged with serious crimes," an assistant U.S. attorney, Peter Smith, said in court papers. "The charges and potential sentencing exposure in this case provide (Ali) with a strong motive to flee."
Huvelle ordered electronic monitoring for Ali. But prosecutors said such monitoring has limits. An alert from an electronic monitoring device, prosecutors said, is after-the-fact.
Ali willingly waived his extradition rights. But that's meaningless, according to prosecutors.
"[I]t is unlikely that he would be apprehended, let alone extradited from, the country to which he would most likely flee: Somalia," Smith said in court papers.
Somalia and the United States do not share an extradition treaty.