How the US war on piracy brought one Somali to a West Virginia prison
Mohamed Hassan Farah, a Somali in US federal prison, has little in common with the 19th-century seafarer Thomas Smith besides the fact that they are among the few people to be convicted of piracy on the high seas in a US court.
While Smith and 13 of his crewmates were hanged in 1820 for boarding and pillaging 30 vessels in three months – including one by the name of Irresistible – Farah is expected to be handed a life sentence in a matter of weeks.
He will serve his time in a US prison after being first detained thousands of miles away and convicted using laws that are centuries old.
Farah is one of only 28 Somalis to be convicted of piracy in the US in recent years following a multinational crackdown after a spike in attacks and kidnappings.
Besides costing the global commerce $18bn a year, Somali pirates have taken several lives – including four Americans traveling on a private yacht – and terrorized the people they kept hostage, as famously depicted in the film Captain Phillips.
Speaking by phone from prison in Glenville, West Virginia, he tells the Guardian about the night in 2010 he and his five crew got into a gun battle with the US navy in the Gulf of Aden, an encounter in which he lost a leg and which ultimately culminated in his incarceration. He protests his innocence and, while the prosecution described him and his co-defendants as serious threats, Farah is still confused as to how he ended up in a cell in West Virginia.
He claims his craft was returning from smuggling people from Somalia to Yemen when their ship broke down and left them stranded at sea for seven days without food or water. He said he had fallen asleep by the engine of the skiff when he was jolted by the sound of an AK-47. The gunshots were let off by a crewmate who had spotted a vessel in the distance and had hoped to attract help, Farah said. At the later trial a key question was whether the initial shot was in the air or at the ship.
“After he shot, we all woke up, and started screaming at each other,” said Farah, who uses a wheelchair and communicates with people in the prison with sign language as he does not speak English. The crew quickly realized this was no ordinary vessel: it was the USS Ashland, an American navy ship.
According to court testimony from the USS Ashland crew viewed by the Guardian and Farah’s account, the navy responded by firing on the skiff with an MK-38, a machine gun that can tear through helicopters and armored vehicles. A bullet hit Farah’s crewmate fatally in the chest and he watched the man fly overboard. Before he could jump in the water, another shot struck their tiny boat. It hit the engine, causing an explosion that set the whole boat ablaze.
Farah said he went in and out of consciousness. His crewmates – now covered in burns – trod water and held him up. Unbeknown to him at the time, one of his legs had been blown off in the explosion. Eventually a navy reconnaissance team came out to round the men up. “I was unconscious when we got on the [US navy] boat,” he said, speaking to the Guardian via a translator. “Afterwards, they said we were pirates who kidnap boats, that we were carrying weapons.”
After the gun incident, the navy brought the men to US shores to stand trial in Norfolk, Virginia. They were indicted for piracy on the high seas, a charge that carries life in federal prison; Farah and his crewmates denied the charges.
Farah’s arrest was the result of a new policy enacted a few years prior. Western countries had formed a naval coalition involving ships from at least 12 countries to patrol the Gulf of Aden as piracy spiraled out of control in 2008 and some countries decided to try captured seafarers suspected of piracy. This created a lottery of outcomes for Somalis in which America – with its tough justice system – was the least favorable destination.
Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Farah might already be out of prison had he been caught by a Dutch or French ship. “In some states they could not convict them because they didn’t have the offense of piracy or only piracy committed on the high seas,” said Anna Petrig, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Basel who has written on the detention of pirates. “They could only be convicted of ordinary crimes and receive sentences of only five or six years.”
Somali piracy had been a problem since the turn of the century but it intensified in 2008, when the number of hostages taken from merchant and private ships jumped from 177 to 815 in just one year. Hijackings and attempted hijackings in the Gulf of Aden, a popular shipping route, increased five-fold that year, according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau. The shipping industry began putting pressure on western governments to tackle the problem as it was jeopardizing a valuable trade route.
A series of United Nations resolutions passed between 2008 and 2009, allowed foreign navies to patrol Somalia’s territorial waters for pirates.
But these navy patrols arguably did not fully anticipate one thing: what to do with the pirates when they were caught? The confusion around this question led to nine out of 10 pirates being released after capture in the first few years of the patrols.
Some countries agreed to take pirates who attacked their own interests for trial – the US was one of them. Farah and his co-defendants were among the first pirates the US brought back for trial. Today, the Somali pirates incarcerated in American prisons number at least 28, stemming from just five cases.
Farah told the Guardian he was born in a small village outside of the coastal city of Bosaso in Somalia, where his parents kept cattle or fished to get by. He and his 15 siblings – nine sisters and six brothers – did not get much in the way of an education growing up. Farah said he had taken only three years of Qur’anic school as a child.
During his trial some 7,556 miles away from his village, he was up against the US district attorney of Eastern Virginia.
The case, though, against the men proved to be extremely convoluted as the only law pertaining to piracy in the US was 200 years old. Bringing that law into the present day presented a range of hurdles. “My very first thought,” said attorney Christian Connell, who represented one of the men: “How can they prosecute these guys right here? That’s just crazy to me.”
UN resolutions passed in the 1980s gave all nations jurisdiction over piracy on the high seas, and therefore the right to prosecute a pirate for crimes committed in international waters.
Shortly after their arrival in the US, the six men were appointed lawyers and translators since none of them spoke English. The DA convinced Farah’s co-defendant Jama Idle Ibrahim, represented by Connell, to cooperate with the government. Ibrahim had been identified as a participant in a previous piracy case and the state provided him with an ultimatum: either cooperate or face life sentences in both cases, his lawyer said.
At the trial before a jury in February 2013, Ibrahim testified that the entire crew had embarked on this trip to loot ships. He had made $17,000 the year before after capturing a Danish ship but had run out of money and decided to set out again.
According to transcripts of his court testimony, obtained by the Guardian, Ibrahim said that he assembled a crew of seven, in which he was the leader and Farah was the driver and responsible for the boat’s engine.
With little time after the five-day trial, the jury found the men guilty on all counts, including piracy. Ibrahim’s testimony proved damning.
Farah was sentenced to 32 years in prison. The judge ruled that a life sentence was too severe despite them being found guilty of piracy. The government appealed to have the life sentence reinstated – and won. The supreme court subsequently declined to hear the case.
Farah was brought back to Virginia to await his new sentence, but it remains unclear where he will serve his lifelong imprisonment. He has spent the past few years at the Gilmer federal correctional institution, a medium security prison with about 1,500 inmates in Glenville, West Virginia.
Along with his amputated leg, Farah has suffered from other health issues in prison. “I have problems with my stomach,” he said from a prison phone. “My intestines are not fine, and the doctors have said that I should do a surgery, but the government hasn’t done anything to make that a reality.”
He said he often has trouble eating because of his stomach issues and is put on an intravenous drip for sustenance.
However, Farah said that he does not mind life in jail. He has found solace in the prison’s Muslim community. His cellmate is a Muslim from Washington DC. Even though they can’t speak to one another, they get along.
The imams at the prison mosque have assisted Farah with money for soap and phone credits. He managed to make an international call to his family once, but was restricted to the 15-minute time limit placed on prison calls.
“They told me they were all fine,” he said. “But what can someone whom you speak to for 15 minutes tell you?”
Farah’s main concern in the interview was confusion surrounding his case. He said he was unsure of the status of his case during the earlier appeals. He has since acquired new counsel but having spent six years in prison, he has little hope for the future.
“We have no one to support us or deliver us from these problems, except for Allah.”
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