Fourteen accused pirates, 13 from Somalia and one from Yemen, appeared in a federal courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia, this afternoon after being indicted for the hijacking of a yacht off the coast of Africa that led to the deaths of four Americans in February.
Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the men were charged with piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and using a rocket-propelled grenade during the kidnapping.
“The lead count is piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence if convicted,” MacBride told ABC News. “The indictment…alleges that at least three of the pirates murdered the Americans without cause, without provocation, did so intentionally.”
The suspects have not been charged with murder, but McBride said the investigation is ongoing and that additional charges are possible.
The men were turned over to the Justice Department today after being held by the U.S. military since the attack on the 58-foot yacht called Quest in the Arabian Sea on Feb. 22, 2011.
The men allegedly attempted to hold four Americans hostage for ransom, but the yacht’s owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, California, and their friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle were shot and killed before the U.S. Navy could negotiate a deal.
Despite the high level of piracy in the waters off East Africa in recent years, the Adams and their friends were the first Americans known to have died in a pirate attack in the region.
The Navy received an SOS call from the Quest, saying that men had boarded the vessel. In response to the call, the USS Sterett began tailing the Quest.
Two of the alleged pirates came aboard the Sterett to negotiate, but while negotiations were underway, the Navy said, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired toward the Sterett. Gunfire was then heard aboard the Quest.
U.S. Navy SEALs boarded the Quest and found two pirates dead as well as all the Americans. The alleged pirates have claimed that the violence was started by the Navy.
The weapons charge, stemming from the RPG attack, carries a minimum sentence of 30 years, while kidnapping can mean a life sentence.
MacBride told ABC News that the military had taken a fifteenth pirate, a Somali, into custody, but he turned out to be a juvenile who had no role in the attack so was not charged.
In November, five Somali pirates were convicted in the same federal court on piracy charges stemming from an attack on two U.S. Navy ships, the USS Ashland and the USS Nicholas. They are scheduled to be sentenced later this month.