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'Piracy' at sea: Has definition changed? Supreme Court declines to enter fray.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeals of two groups of captured Somalis. Federal prosecutors had argued that the definition of piracy has broadened since the early 1800s.

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In this court room sketch, suspected Somali pirates, from left, Mohammed Modin Hasan, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, Abdi Mohammed Umar, Gabul Abdullahi Ali, and Abdi Wali Dire listen to the judge during jury selection at the the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Va., November 2010. The Supreme court turned aside an appeal by five Somali nationals convicted of firing shots from a small skiff at the USS Nicholas, a Norfolk-based frigate, off the coast of Africa.

Alba Bragoli/AP

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The US Supreme Court on Tuesday let stand a series of lower-court opinions endorsing a broad view of what constitutes the crime of piracy – a move that will make it significantly easier for the government to prosecute and convict suspected Somali pirates in federal court.

The high court turned aside an appeal by five Somali nationals convicted of firing shots from a small skiff at a US Navy frigate on patrol 600 miles off the coast of Somalia on April 1, 2010.

The warship, the USS Nicholas, returned fire and sank the boat. Three men were taken prisoner. Two others were captured on another small boat nearby.

The action was part of an international response to widespread violence against cargo ships off the coast of Somalia. The alleged pirates would fire upon and board civilian ships and then hold the ship, cargo, and crew hostage until hefty ransoms were paid.

The Somalis are said to have mistaken the warship for a commercial vessel.

All five prisoners were brought to the United States and charged with piracy. They were subsequently convicted and sentenced to mandatory terms of life in prison on the piracy charge, plus 80 years for firearms and other violations.

On appeal, defense lawyers argued that their clients’ encounter with the US warship did not amount to piracy. The historic definition of piracy was robbery at sea, they said. Since their clients never forcibly boarded the warship or removed anything of value from it, they could not be prosecuted for robbery at sea.

Federal prosecutors countered that the definition of piracy had broadened since Congress passed the piracy statute in 1819. Under international law, they said, piracy includes a wider range of hostile acts.

A federal judge agreed, and that ruling was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

A second group of five Somali nationals raised the same issue before their federal trial on piracy charges.

The second group allegedly fired a shot from a skiff at the USS Ashland on April 10, 2010, while the warship was on patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

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