Pirates get first hearing in federal court

NORFOLK, Va. —Eleven suspected Somali pirates accused in separate attacks on two Navy ships off the coast of Africa were indicted in U.S. federal court Friday.

There was heavy security at the courthouse when the men appeared wearing handcuffs and either bright orange or olive drab prison outfits. One used crutches and had a bandage wrapped around his head. Another used a wheelchair, with his leg covered in bandages because it had been amputated below the knee.

The government said the injuries were the result of the men's battle with the Navy.

The defendants did not enter pleas. An interpreter read them the charges of piracy, attacks to plunder a vessel, assault with a dangerous weapon, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Piracy carries a mandatory life sentence; the other charges carry penalties of 10 to 35 years.

The men, appearing weary and impassive, sat in the jury box during the 90-minute hearing. They did not make any statements other than to say they understood the court proceeding.

U.S. Magistrate Tommy Miller scheduled a detention hearing Wednesday and ordered the men kept in custody until then. They have no listed assets, so they will be assigned defense attorneys.

Five of the men were captured March 31, after the frigate USS Nicholas exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel west of the Seychelles.

The other six were captured after they allegedly began shooting at the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland on April 10 about 380 miles off Djibouti, a small nation facing Yemen across the mouth of the Red Sea.

U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said the Defense Department has pushed for the U.S. prosecution because the Navy was the victim and believed the piracy charges could be proved in federal court.

"Piracy threatens human lives and disrupts international commerce," MacBride said. "When pirates attack U.S. vessels by force, they must face severe consequences."

The trial, which could be scheduled within two months, would be held in a court that has a strong reputation for maritime law. Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval base, is within 10 miles of the courtroom. Both ships in the attacks are part of the Atlantic Fleet based in the Hampton Roads, Va., area.