Alleged pirate pleads not guilty in fatal hijack

Mohammad Saaili Shibin, a Somali man accused of acting as chief negotiator for pirates who took four Americans hostage and killed them in February, is transported from U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., April 13, 2011. AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. - A Somali man the U.S. believes is the highest-ranking pirate it has ever captured pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday to piracy, kidnapping and weapons charges related to the February hijacking of a yacht that left four Americans dead.

Mohammad Saaili Shibin, 50, is accused of acting as chief negotiator for more than a dozen pirates who took control of the yacht Quest in the Arabian Sea.

The owners of the Quest — Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif. — were shot to death along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle after they were taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.

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Unlike the other suspected pirates, court documents say Shibin never boarded the Quest and that he operated from land. He is the first suspected pirate to be taken into custody in Somalia rather than at sea. Court documents say Shibin researched the hostages online to determine how much of a ransom to seek for them. Shibin has also acknowledged acting as a negotiator for a German vessel, the M/V Marida Marguerite, that was taken hostage by pirates in May and released in December, receiving $30,000 for his services, prosecutors said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph DePadilla said the U.S. government is currently in negotiations with the German government and that additional charges could be forthcoming in that case.

In court Wednesday, Shibin said he made a living as a teacher, social worker and oil worker. Federal agents confiscated $1,600 in U.S. currency from Shibin when they took him into custody, but he said he couldn't afford an attorney because the money he made in Somalia had been spent on him and his five children.

Shibin's court-appointed attorney, James Broccoletti, said he believes Shibin is college educated and speaks three languages, English, Somali and Italian.

Pirates have increased attacks off Africa's eastern coast despite an international flotilla of warships dedicated to stopping the assaults.

U.S. naval forces were tracking the Americans' captured yacht with unmanned aerial vehicles and four warships, and negotiations were under way when the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade.

Special forces boarded the vessel and found the Americans had been shot, according to the military. Pirates have blamed the deaths of the American hostages on the U.S. Navy, saying the pirates felt under attack.

It was the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in the pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years. The pirates are typically motivated by the potential for millions of dollars in ransom money.

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The Adams, who were retired, had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht and delivering Bibles around the world. The indictment accuses at least three of the indicted men of shooting and killing the four Americans without provocation.

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