The U.S. Department of Justice wants another opportunity to put an accused negotiator for Somali high-seas pirates on trial.
A Washington federal jury acquitted Ali Mohammad Ali in late November on a piracy count—the most serious charge against him. The jury hung on two lesser charges related to the taking of hostages. A lawyer for the government today told the court that prosecutors planned to retry Ali on the hostage-taking charges.
Ali was accused of boarding a ship that had been taken over by pirates and helping the perpetrators negotiate a ransom. Ali maintained he was trying to free the ship's crew and gather information.
Ali's lawyer, Matthew Peed of Clinton Brook & Peed, told U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle that he planned to file a motion arguing that double jeopardy bars a retrial. The elements of the piracy charge Ali was acquitted of were related to the remaining two charges, Peed said in court today.
During today's hearing, Huvelle questioned the likelihood that a second jury would again hang on the hostage-taking charges. She noted that the evidence presented so far could have gone either way.
In late 2008, according to the government, 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.
Peed asked for Ali, who has been in jail for more than two years, to be released as the case moves ahead. Huvelle ordered Ali released before the first trial, finding the government failed to prove he was a flight risk. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed her the following day. Peed said that in light of the acquittal on the piracy charge, there were "profoundly changed circumstances."
Huvelle said her position on Ali's imprisonment was already known and expressed doubts that the D.C. Circuit would take a different position now. She urged Peed to speak with Justice Department lawyers, suggesting they might reach an agreement in which the government wouldn't take the issue back to the appeals court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brenda Johnson didn't address the imprisonment issue at today's hearing.
Noting that additional motions and appeals could mean more time in jail for Ali, the judge repeatedly expressed her desire for the case to move quickly. She pushed lawyers on both sides to find ways to speed up pretrial proceedings and their presentations at a second trial, if it ended up taking place.
Peed is scheduled to file his double jeopardy motion in early January. Huvelle did not set a date for a second trial.