A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to free a man accused of negotiating on behalf of Somali pirates, pending a Justice Department appeal.
Judge Ellen S. Huvelle told prosecutors it would be unfair to keep Ali Mohamed Ali behind bars for months while the government appeals a ruling she made that's adverse to the prosecution. Ali is accused of serving as a go-between for pirates operating off the coast of Somalia and the owners of a Danish ship that was hijacked in 2008. He was taken into U.S. custody on his way to an educational conference in North Carolina, while he switched planes in Virginia.
Ali is one of about 30 accused pirates who have passed through the American justice system, according to a recent NPR Morning Edition story.
But international law scholars such as Eugene Kontorovich, of Northwestern University, have raised questions about whether the Justice Department is stretching 18th century piracy laws too far. Kontorovich told NPR in an email interview that the judge's decision amounts to "a major embarrassment for the government."
"I can't think of any case in U.S. history or in any other Somali pirate trial in the world where an alleged pirate has been allowed out on bail pending trial," Kontorovich said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., said prosecutors would have no comment on the judge's ruling. Last week, the Justice Department raised the idea that Ali could be detained by immigration authorities if the judge decided to grant his release.