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US jury convicts five Somalis of piracy

Five Somali men accused of attacking a US Navy vessel, the USS Nicholas, off Somalia were convicted on federal piracy charges yesterday in the first trial of its kind in more than a century.

The jury's verdict came in a US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia. The five men stood silently as the verdict was read. They face mandatory life terms at a sentencing hearing set for 14 March.

Prosecutors said the five had confessed to the attack that occurred on 1 April; they mistook the ship for a merchant vessel.

Defence lawyers argued the men were innocent fishermen who were abducted by pirates and forced to fire at the ship. They also questioned the validity of the confessions that were obtained by a Navy interpreter and were not videotaped.

John S Davis, prosecuting assistant US attorney, said the men were in a skiff that opened fire with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine guns.

Mr Davis said all the men later confessed to the attack. He said they expected to make up to $40,000 (£25,000) from the ransom.

Defence lawyers said it was not uncommon for pirates to capture fishermen and force them to do their bidding or be killed. They said the men had actually hoped to be rescued.

Legal scholars said one of the last piracy trials in the US was in 1861 during the Civil War when 13 Southern privateers were prosecuted.