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US appeals court hears dispute over judge's rejection of life sentences for 5 Somali pirates

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RICHMOND, Virginia — A federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a judge overstepped his authority when he imposed less than the mandatory life prison term for five Somali pirates whose mistaken attack on a Navy ship left one of their own dead but caused no harm to any of the sailors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin L. Hatch told a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Congress determined that life imprisonment is the appropriate punishment regardless of whether anyone dies at the hands of pirates.

"Here's a person that as a class is a dangerous person in the eyes of Congress," Hatch said. "Congress has provided there is a life punishment, and I think it's important that be followed."

Geremy Kamens, an attorney for the pirates, argued that U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson got it right when he ruled that life imprisonment would be unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment for a crime in which so little actual harm was done. Jackson sentenced the defendants to prison terms ranging from 30 to 42½ years.

Kamens said there is no question that life sentences would be "extraordinarily harsh and grossly disproportionate."

According to court papers, seven men boarded a small skiff in April 2010 and set out to capture a merchant ship that they could bring to Somalia and hold for ransom. In the dim early-morning light, they mistook the USS Ashland for a cargo ship. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles and a rocket propelled grenade launcher, the men opened fire on the amphibious landing ship.

Sailors fired back with armor-piercing incendiary shells. The first shot killed one pirate, and the second caused the skiff to explode in flames, sending the rest of the men into the Gulf of Aden waters where they were rescued by the sailors. While they were treading water, the pirates concocted a story that they were human smugglers stranded at sea and that they had fired in the direction of the Navy ship only to draw attention to be rescued.

One of the surviving pirates cooperated with federal prosecutors and received a lighter sentence. The other five went to trial in the case now before the appeals court.

Kamens said the piracy law appears to have evolved over time to encompass attempted piracy, which historically had been punishable by only up to 10 years in prison under a different statute dealing with plundering.

"In this case, a life sentence for these defendants means no opportunity for rehabilitation, no chance of ever seeing their family again," he said. "That is particularly egregious."

But Hatch said the "very grave harm" that the pirates intended cannot be overlooked. He urged the appeals court to send the case back to Jackson with orders to impose the life sentences.

The court typically takes several weeks to rule.

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