A jury in Norfolk, Va. convicted five Somali men Wednesday of international piracy, in what the Justice Department calls the first international piracy conviction in the United States since 1820.
Each of the defendants stood quietly, listening to an interpreter reveal their fate: guilty on all counts, including international piracy.
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said that conviction alone could send them to prison for the rest of their lives.
"Today marks the first jury conviction of piracy in more than 190 years," MacBride said in a conference call with reporters. "These five Somali pirates were convicted of an armed assault on the high seas against what they thought was a merchant vessel but turned out to be a U.S. Navy frigate engaged in counterpiracy operations off the horn of Africa."
Prosecutors told the jury that three of the defendants fired at the USS Nicholas on April 1. But sailors shot back with machine guns, overpowering the accused pirates. Authorities say the men eventually confessed onboard the Navy vessel after they were given food, clean clothes and all the cigarettes they wanted.
Piracy -- especially off the coast of Somalia -- is a growing problem. MacBride cited recent data that reflect more than 42 piracy incidents worldwide in the past month. "Modern-day pirates not only threaten human lives but also disrupt international commerce by extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments," he said.
The trial against Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Adbullahi Ali, Abdi Wale Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher and Abdi Mohammed Umar took nine days.
Attorneys for the Somali men are likely to appeal the convictions and to argue that the men never actually got control of the Navy vessel, so they can't be considered pirates under the law.
Defense lawyers told Associated Press reporters the accused pirates came from poor backgrounds and only wanted to improve their desperate lives. They may ask the U.S. government to let the men serve their prison terms in Somalia.
They will be sentenced March 14 by U.S. District Judge Mark Davis.