RICHMOND, Va. - In the violent world of piracy, Mohammad Saaili Shibin was a multilingual negotiator based in lawless Somalia, working his cellphone to negotiate multimillion-dollar ransoms for merchant ships and sailors that dared to venture into pirate-infested international waters off Africa.
Does that make him guilty of piracy?
The question was the central argument Tuesday as a federal appeals court debated with an attorney seeking to overturn Shibin's piracy conviction and a government prosecutor arguing against it.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue an opinion in several weeks or longer in a case that could ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A federal judge sentenced Shibin last August to a dozen life sentences for his role in the hijacking of a German merchant vessel in 2010 that involved the torture of crewmembers to secure a higher ransom and the shooting deaths of four Americans aboard the yacht Quest in 2010.
Shibin has been called the top U.S. catch since it joined an international effort to combat piracy off Africa. That effort has brought nearly 20 bedraggled pirates for prosecution to Norfolk, where ships based at the huge naval base there have been deployed to combat the crimes.
James O. Broccoletti argued his client couldn't be convicted of piracy because he never set out on the high seas, a requirement set out by U.S. law. "He never left Somalia," he told the judges.
Define the "line, where does it cut off," for someone to be considered a pirate? asked Judge Paul V. Niemeyer. "I'm trying to find out what piracy is," he said.
Broccoletti responded that the crime must occur in international waters. "He never left the territorial water of Somalia," he said.
U.S. law governing piracy, which dates back nearly two centuries, defines piracy as boarding a ship at sea and robbing it. Since the U.S. began its crackdown in 2010, courts have come to conflicting conclusions on how the law should be interpreted.
The government maintains the U.S. statute incorporates broader international law and recognizes that piracy is an organized crime. That means it includes those who work onshore, such as Shibin, to research how much ransom a pirated vessel can come up with and to negotiate a payment for release.
"It's very difficult to get them," Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Hatch told the judges. "It was very difficult to get Mr. Shibin. But we got him."
Broccoletti and Hatch, a lead prosecutor in the U.S. piracy convictions, each could barely string two sentences together as Niemeyer, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz and Judge Henry F. Floyd fired question after question at the two attorneys. The questioning, though, didn't signal which way they were leaning on the appeal.
And it was occasionally light-hearted.
"These guys don't dress like pirates, do they? Niemeyer asked.
"No, your honor, they do not," Hatch said.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the three men charged with shooting the Americans on the Quest.
Eleven other men who boarded the yacht have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to life terms.
Quest owners Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle were the first Americans to be killed in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Shibin also was involved in the piracy of the Marida Marguerite, a German-operated tanker carrying $10 million worth of fuel when it was hijacked in early May 2010.
Investigators said the Somali pirates tortured the 22 crewmembers "in indescribable ways" for hours at a time before receiving several million dollars' ransom and releasing the ship on Dec. 27, 2010.