NORFOLK, Virginia — Two Somali pirates convicted in the shooting deaths of four Americans aboard a yacht off the coast of Africa got a fair trial, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the convictions of Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, who each received 21 life sentences.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment. Defense attorneys did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.
Beyle and Abrar were among 19 men who boarded the 58-foot Quest in hopes of holding the Americans for ransom. The plan fell apart after the U.S. Navy intervened, determined to keep the sailboat in international waters and prevent it from reaching Somali territorial waters.
A pirate first fired a rocket-propelled grenade toward a Navy destroyer and missed. That was followed by a hail of bullets and the shootings of the Americans: yacht owners Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, California and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle. Four pirates also died.
Beyle and Abrar were each convicted on 26 counts. Abrar sought dismissal of the entire indictment, while Beyle challenged only his murder and firearms convictions — not the piracy counts.
In his appeal, Abrar argued that he was improperly prevented from presenting evidence that he was invited aboard the pirates' vessel to do mechanical work before being forced to join in the attempted abduction of the Americans. He claimed he was improperly prevented from producing witnesses who could corroborate his story.
"Significantly, we do not even know whether the witnesses proffered by Abrar actually exist," appeals court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote. He noted that Abrar's own investigators traveled to Somalia "but failed to obtain the cooperation of any witnesses."
Wilkinson said the trial judge also instructed the jury on Abrar's duress defense, despite the lack of evidence and over the objections of prosecutors.
"Despite the opportunities afforded to Abrar, the weight of the evidence against him was simply overwhelming — and virtually uncontroverted," the judge wrote.
The court also found no merit in Beyle's claim that the U.S. lacked jurisdiction because the killings occurred within a 200-mile zone that Somalia claims as territorial waters. The court said international law imposes a 12-mile limit on territorial waters, although some economic rights do extend out to 200 miles.
"Any allocation of economic rights, however, is a far cry from conferring on a nation the exclusive authority endemic to sovereignty to define and punish criminal violations," Wilkinson wrote.