Jury hung in Somali piracy case

A jury that acquitted a Somali man of piracy charges has been unable to reach a verdict on two hostage-taking charges, resulting in a mistrial Thursday.

The acquittal of Ali Mohamed Ali on the more serious piracy charges remains intact, meaning prosecutors can only attempt to retry him on hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking. A prosecutor said the government hasn’t yet made a decision on that. U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle scheduled a status conference for next week where the government is expected to reveal its decision. Ali will remain in jail until then.

Ali, 51, has already been in jail for more than 2 ½ years. Defense lawyers are expected to oppose a new trial.

Jurors began deliberating in the case Nov. 20, and acquitted Ali of piracy Nov. 26. They said at the time they were deadlocked on the other charges — and have remained so more than two weeks later.

Ali negotiated a ransom for Somali pirates during a 2008 pirate takeover of a Danish merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. At the time of his 2011 arrest, he was the education minister in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, but he has spent most of his adult life in the United States.

Pirates seized the M/V CEC Future in November 2008, and Ali boarded the boat a couple of days later. An English speaker, he communicated the demands of the pirates to officials from Clipper Group, the ship’s owner. The pirates initially demanded a $7 million ransom, but settled for $1.7 million at the end of the more than two-month siege.

The key issue in the trial was whether Ali was an advocate for the pirates or just a translator doing the best he could in a situation not of his own making.

Jurors heard a recording of a telephone conversation in which Ali told a negotiator for the Clipper Group that the pirates were not bluffing and that the time for negotiating was over. “Let them think about the crew also, otherwise they can lose not only the vessel but the crew also,” he said on the call.

But the ship’s captain, Andrey Nozhkin, who also participated in the call, testified that Ali whispered a comforting word to him after the call was over: “Bluffing.”

Twice in the last two years Huvelle had ordered Ali released pending trial — only to have the appeals court reverse her. When she released him in September, Huvelle concluded that the lengthy pretrial lockup violated his constitutional rights, and wrote, “there is certainly no dispute that Ali is not, under any common definition of the term, a ‘pirate.’ “

Ali was arrested in April 2011 after being lured to the U.S. on a bogus invitation to attend an education conference in Raleigh, N.C.

He would have faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted of piracy, and potential, but not mandatory, life sentences for the hostage-taking charges.