Update: On September 6, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered Ali back to jail at the government's request. The court did not provide an explanation for its decision, except to say the government "satisfied the requirements for an injunction pending appeal." The government argued Ali posed "a significant flight risk." Ali's lawyer opposed the request. The appeals court also granted the government's request to expedite briefing.
A Somali man jailed for more than two years on charges of aiding high-seas pirates will be released pending his November trial, a Washington federal trial judge said today, rejecting the government’s flight-risk argument.
"There is a point in time at which due process can no longer tolerate additional pretrial detention," U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle wrote, ordering the release of the defendant, Ali Mohamed Ali. "For Ali, that time has come."
In late 2008, according to court filings, pirates seized a ship in the Gulf of Aden close to the Horn of Africa. The ship's owner paid a $1.7 million ransom for the ship's release. Ali was accused of boarding the ship two days after the attack and serving as the pirates' negotiator.
Ali was arrested in 2011 after U.S. officials lured him to the United States under the pretense of attending an education conference in North Carolina; at the time, Ali was an education official in Somaliland. He was charged with aiding the pirates who carried out the attack. A Washington federal district judge denied Ali's motion for pretrial release, finding he was a serious flight risk.
The case was reassigned to Huvelle in late 2011. In light of new evidence undercutting the government's claims that Ali posed a flight risk, Huvelle ordered his release to home confinement in Virginia last summer. The government successfully appealed that decision. Ali again moved for pretrial release in July of this year as other appeals in the case were pending; his trial had been rescheduled from August to November.
In today's ruling, Huvelle said previous decisions denying pretrial release didn't bar her from reaching a different conclusion based on changed circumstances. Unlike other cases involving lengthy pretrial incarceration, Huvelle said Ali didn't pose a danger to the community.
"Ali is neither a terrorist nor a drug kingpin," she wrote. "As the government admitted to Ali during plea negotiations in July, the government does not even think that Ali is a pirate." The fact that Ali was charged with piracy didn't inherently make him dangerous, the judge said.
Given the harsh conditions detainees can face, pretrial detention should be the exception and not the rule, Huvelle said, noting Ali was at one point wrongfully held in solitary confinement for an offense he didn't commit. "With these considerations in mind, 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. The judge also found that the government was responsible for delays in the case.
Absent evidence that Ali posed a threat, the only reason to keep him in jail was to stop him from fleeing the country. Huvelle said the government no longer had strong enough evidence that Ali posed a serious flight risk. To the contrary, the judge said, there was evidence Ali had significant ties to the United States and the Washington area.
Once released to home confinement, Ali will be under a "high-intensity supervision program," which includes 24-hour electronic monitoring and bars him from coming within a mile of airports and 500 feet of bus and train stations, according to the opinion.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, declined to comment. Ali's lawyer, Matthew Peed of Clinton Brook & Peed, could not immediately be reached for comment.