NORFOLK, Virginia -- Five Somali men were convicted of piracy Wednesday for the 2010 attack on the USS Ashland off the coast of Africa.
A sixth man who claimed to be the group's leader had already pleaded guilty to lesser charges and testified that they thought they were attacking a merchant ship when one of his crew members fired an AK-47 at the Ashland.
Prosecutors said the men intended to board the ship and hold it for ransom, a common practice in Somalia. But before that could happen, the Virginia-based amphibious dock landing ship returned fire with a 25mm cannon, killing one man and setting the pirates' skiff on fire.
Defense attorneys had argued to the federal jury that the men were returning to Somalia after ferrying refugees to Yemen when they came across the ship in the Gulf of Aden. They said an AK-47 was fired in the Ashland's direction to get its attention so it could help them after they were wandering around lost at sea.
Jama Idle Ibrahim, the self-proclaimed pirate crew's leader, said it was his idea to tell Navy investigators that story when they were in the water awaiting rescue. He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of getting his 30-year sentence eventually reduced.
Each of the other men convicted of piracy face a mandatory life sentence plus additional time for other related charges.
"These men were pirates - plain and simple," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement. "They attacked a ship hoping to hold it ransom for millions of dollars. Few crimes are older than piracy on the high seas, and today's verdict shows that the United States takes it very seriously."
A federal judge had dismissed the piracy charges because the men never boarded or robbed the ship. But a federal appeals court reversed that decision, sending the case back to trial.