A Somali pirate who attacked a U.S.-flagged ship off the coast of Africa in 2009 was sentenced to more than 33 years in prison Wednesday by an emotional judge who said a long sentence was necessary to deter others and punish the only survivor among a group of pirates who "appeared to relish their most depraved acts."
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska sometimes became choked up as she described the harm Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse brought to the crew aboard a merchant ship in the Indian Ocean.
She ordered Muse to serve 33 years and nine months in prison, rejecting a plea for leniency by his defense lawyers.
The tense standoff that ensued after Muse and his fellow pirates held the captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage after the April 8, 2009, attack ended when Navy sharpshooters killed three of Muse's men and freed the captain, Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt.
Muse pleaded guilty last year to federal charges in a prosecution that was part of a stepped-up effort to stem a wave of 21st-century piracy using 19th-century maritime laws.
Before he was sentenced, Muse said he was "very sorry for what I did."
"I got my hands into something that was more powerful than me," Muse said through a translator.
Preska rejected Muse's attempts to minimize or explain away his involvement and she noted that prosecutors had described the pirates as experienced, coordinated and ruthless.
"They appeared to relish even their most depraved acts of physical and psychological violence," she said, noting that the pirates had conducted a mock execution of the captain during the several days they held hostage.
Before the sentence was announced, 44-year-old crew member Colin Wright told the judge he was "not the same person I used to be and I never will be."
He complained that security still has not been improved much for ships traveling near Somalia.
"I'd like to see something done about that," he said.
Late last year, a Virginia jury found five other Somali men guilty of exchanging gunfire with a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Africa. Scholars called it the first piracy case to go to trial since 1861 during the Civil War, when a New York jury deadlocked on charges against 13 Southern privateers.
Aside from the novelty of his case, Muse became a curiosity because he defied swashbuckler stereotypes: The boyish, 5-foot-2 defendant has often looked bewildered in court and sometimes wept. Following his capture, his lawyers insisted he was 15 and should be tried as a juvenile; prosecutors convinced a judge he was at least 18.
The Maersk Alabama was boarded by the pirates as it transported humanitarian supplies about 280 miles off the coast of Somalia, an impoverished East African nation of about 10 million people.
Muse was the first to board the 500-foot ship, firing his AK-47 assault rifle at the captain, prosecutors said. He ordered Phillips to halt the vessel and then held him hostage on a sweltering, enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter.
The English-speaking Muse taunted Phillips by threatening to "bury him in a shallow area of the ocean" and by telling his captive he "liked having hijacked an American ship and wanted to kill Americans," the government's court papers said.
The siege ended when Navy sharpshooters on the USS Bainbridge picked off the three pirates in a stunning nighttime operation, leaving Phillips untouched.
Somalis captured by international naval forces have been brought to several countries in Europe and Asia to face piracy charges. The Dutch navy captured five men last November trying to hijack a South African yacht, and they are now in custody in the Netherlands awaiting prosecution.
Last June, five other Somalis were convicted by a Dutch court of attacking a cargo ship in 2009 with automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade and sentenced to five years. In the same month the Dutch extradited 10 alleged pirates to Germany to stand trial for trying to seize a German cargo ship.
Other criminal cases for piracy are under way in India, South Korea and Malaysia.