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United States v. Shibin, No. 12-4652

Decided: July 12, 2013

Finding that the district court did not err in finding Mohammad Saaili Shibin (“Shibin”) guilty of all 15 charges relating to his involvement in the piracy and ransom of two ships on the high seas, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

On May 8, 2010, the Marida Maruerite (“Marida”), a German Merchant ship was seized by Somali pirates on the high seas and transported to Somalia. While docked in Somalia, Shibin boarded the vessel and, over the course of seven months, participated in ransom negotiations and torture of the crew. In December 2010, Shibin completed a five million dollar ransom deal for the Marida’s crew. Several months later, the Quest, an American sailing vessel was also hijacked by a group of Somali pirates and four Americans were taken hostage. While en route to Somalia, the US Navy learned of the hijacked ship and established radio communications with the pirates. Through the course of the communications, the pirates represented that Shibin was the individual with the authority to negotiate and provided the Navy with his cell phone number. On February 22, 2011, as the Quest was nearing Somalia waters, the Navy advised the pirates to stop. When they did not comply, the Navy attempted to cut the Quest off, prompting the pirates to initiate hostilities. As Navy vessels began to close in, but before they reached the Quest, the pirates killed all four American hostages on board. Thereafter, on April 4, 2011, acting in cooperation with local authorities, the FBI arrested Shibin in Somalia. While in custody in Somalia, with the assistance of an interpreter, FBI agents questioned Shibin several times over three days. It was confirmed that his cell phone number matched the number provided to the Navy during communications with the Quest hijackers. Shibin admitted involvement in the Marida ransom negotiations, but denied any involvement in the Quest hijacking despite admitting to conducting various searches on his cell phone related to the Quest hijacking and its crew. Searches of Shibin’s bank records and phone records uncovered a sizable amount of damning evidence indicating his involvement in the Quest hijacking. In April 2011, after obtaining custody of Shibin, the FBI transported him to the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he was “found” for jurisdictional purposes. Shibin was indicted on 15 counts relating to his involvement in the two piracies. Counts 1 through 6 (the “Marida Charges”), were based on his involvement in the Marida piracy, and counts 7 through 15, were based on his involvement in the Quest piracy and killing of the American hostages. Following a ten-day trial, Shibin was convicted on all counts. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Shibin contended that the district court erred by refusing (1) to dismiss the piracy charges on the ground that Shibin himself did not act on the high seas and therefore the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction; (2) to dismiss all counts for lack of personal jurisdiction because he was forcibly seized in Somalia and involuntarily removed to the U.S.; (3) to dismiss certain alleged “non-piracy charges” contained within the Marida Charges—charges 2 through 6—because “universal jurisdiction” did not extend to justify the U.S. government’s prosecution of those crimes; and (4) to exclude FBI Agent Kevin Coughlin’s testimony about prior statements made by a Somali-speaking witness through an interpreter because the interpreter was not present in court.

Rejecting Shibin’s first contention, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Shibin’s piracy convictions because the court found he intentionally facilitated two piracies on the high seas, even though his conduct took place in Somalia and its territorial waters. Next, the court rejected Shibin’s second contention, and found that, although Shibin was brought into the U.S. involuntarily, the personal jurisdiction requirement, as contained in 18 U.S.C. §§ 1651, 1203, and 2280, was satisfied. In so concluding, the court noted that generally, under the Ker-Frisbie doctrine, the manner in which the defendant is captured and brought to court is generally irrelevant to the court’s personal jurisdiction over him. The court next rejected Shibin’s third argument, finding that counts 2 through 6 were based on a statute that Congress validly applied to extraterritorial conduct rather than “universal jurisdiction.” Lastly, the court addressed Shibin’s contention that the district court abused its discretion in allowing Agent Coughlin to testify regarding statements made by a Somali interpreter during the interrogations of a Shibin witness, Salad Ali, because the interpreter was an out of court declarant. Finding that (1) Agent Coughlin’s statements were admissible testimony of prior inconsistent statements made by Salad Ali and (2) that the absence of the interpreter did not render the statements inadmissible as hearsay because the interpreter was not the declarant, but only a language conduit, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not commit plain error in its evidentiary ruling.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols