Admiralty & Maritime Law

Federal Judge Blasts US Prosecutors for 'Unbelievably Inexcusable Behavior' in Somali Piracy Case


Visibly angry and getting more so after learning shortly before trial that prosecutors could place a Somali piracy case defendant in international waters for only 24 to 28 minutes, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., gave them a piece of her mind.

Saying that she was “misled” by a government claim that Ali Mohamed Ali could be proven to be in international waters, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said she had no idea the claimed proof applied to a period of less than 24 hours, the Associated Press reported, quoting from a transcript of the Friday hearing.

“Now with five days to go and the guy’s liberty at stake, I am told that we don’t—he didn’t do anything that we can specify on the high seas,” Huvelle said. “That to me is unbelievably inexcusable behavior.”

Calling the prosecution of Ali an “outrage” and “a case that you cannot win,” Huvelle told the prosecution: “The criminal law does not exist to go to push something to the outer limits.”

She said she would reconsider her earlier decision-making concerning the charges Ali will face at trial, and will release him pending trial if the government appeals her ruling.

Prosecutor Gregg A. Maisel said the feds did not mislead the court. He also told the judge Ali won’t be released from custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even if she does grant him pretrial release, because he lacks legal status, the AP article recounts. (Ali was arrested at Dulles International Airport last year, as he was headed from Somalia to a Raleigh, N.C., conference. His lawyer, Matthew J. Peed, said in a Monday court filing that the feds invited Ali to the U.S. and paid for his plane ticket.)

“Not if I can stop it,” the judge shot back at Maisel, as the contentious court session continued.

“You brought him here. You bamboozled him here,” Huvelle told the prosecutor, apparently referring to the claimed government scheme to lure Ali to Raleigh for a conference. “You brought him here under false pretenses, now you tell me he can’t be free while you take up an extremely novel difficult legal principle.”

A Courthouse News article provides additional details about the case and links to an earlier opinion (PDF) by Huvelle that dismisses one charge against Ali but upholds others.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Federal Appeals Court Defines Piracy on the High Seas”

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