NEW YORK— Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse grew up destitute in Somalia, the oldest of 12 kids and the product of a violent, lawless nation where his parents scraped together a few dollars a day selling milk and tending to a small herd of camels, cows and goats.
For entertainment, he would frequent a run-down outdoor cinema and watch Bollywood movies in a town with no running water or electricity. He eventually joined a gang of pirates who laid siege to an American cargo ship and took the captain hostage before three of them were killed by Navy snipers.
Muse survived but was stabbed in the hand with a knife, telling a crew member after the attack that it was always his dream to come to America.
On Tuesday, the teenager made it to America under circumstances far from idyllic, appearing in a packed federal courtroom in New York on what are believed to be the first piracy charges in the U.S. in more than a century.
Prosecutors portrayed him as the brazen ringleader of the pirates who shot at the ship’s captain and bragged about prior acts of piracy. But the bravado authorities say Muse displayed as the first pirate to board the Maersk Alabama on April 8 had evaporated by the time he entered the courtroom.
The 5-foot-2 Muse looked bewildered and so scrawny that his prison clothes were several sizes too big. He had a frayed white bandage where he was stabbed.
When his court-appointed lawyer said Muse’s father would be interviewed in Somalia to verify his birthdate, Muse put his head in his hand and broke down in tears.
When the judge asked him if he understood that court-appointed lawyers would represent him, the teenager responded through a translator: “I understand. I don’t have any money.”
When he was asked to raise his right hand, he pointed it into the air as if he was being called on in class. The decision by the federal government to bring Muse to justice here has thrust the skinny teenager into the international spotlight, and raised legal questions about whether the U.S. is going too far in trying to make an example of someone so young.
Muse was charged with piracy, conspiracy and brandishing and firing a gun during a conspiracy. The most serious count carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
“An act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin.
The government says he is 18. A federal judge agreed Tuesday, ruling that Muse is an adult and that the case can proceed in open court.
But his lawyers said they are going to continue to investigate his age and believe that he will ultimately be exonerated. If he is found to be underage, defense lawyers could try to have the case tossed out or seek leniency if he is convicted.
Defense lawyer Deirdre von Dornum said she has had to reassure Muse that the American justice system is fair, because he knows only the anarchy that has ruled Somalia.
She said he smiled before a gaggle of news cameras upon his arrival to New York on Monday only because he had never seen a camera in his life.
“As you can tell, he’s extremely young, injured and terrified,” von Dornum said.
The details of Muse’s life are murky, with his parents in Somalia insisting he was tricked into getting involved in piracy. His mother said he was “wise beyond his years” — a child who ignored other boys his age who tried to tease him and got lost in books instead.
“The last time I saw him he was in his school uniform,” the teen’s mother, Adar Abdirahman Hassan, 40, told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday from her home in Galkayo.
“He was brainwashed. People who are older than him outwitted him, people who are older than him duped him.”
Muse’s mother sells milk at a small market every day, saving around $6 every month for school fees for her oldest son. She pays $15 a month in rent.
Omar Jamal, executive director of Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, said his Somali immigrant organization reached family members of the pirates during the hostage standoff in the Indian Ocean.
Muse’s family members “don’t have any money. The father has some camels and cows and goats outside the city. … The father goes outside with the livestock and comes home at night. Father said they don’t have any money, they are broke,” Jamal said.
At some point, Muse teamed up with the pirates who set their sights on the Maersk Alabama as it carried humanitarian supplies to Africa. They stormed the ship with AK-47s and tangled with the Maersk crew.
An FBI criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday said Muse was the first to board the boat, firing his gun at the captain.
He entered the bridge, told the captain to stop the ship and “conducted himself as the leader of the pirates,” according to the complaint.
A Connecticut crewman led Muse into the engine room, where he says he plunged a knife into the pirate’s hand. The pirates held the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage for several days on a sweltering lifeboat before Muse surrendered to seek medical attention aboard the USS Bainbridge for his hand.
The crew member who stabbed Muse said Tuesday that the teenager counted himself lucky to raid a U.S. ship and carried himself as the leader of the pirate gang.
“He was surprised he was on a U.S. ship. He kept asking, `You all come from America?’ Then he claps and cheers and smiles. He caught himself a big fish. He can’t believe it,” said crewmember ATM “Zahid” Reza.
Muse planned to demand at least $3 million, Reza said.
Reza said Muse told him it was his dream to come to America. “His dreams come true, but he comes to the U.S. Not as a visitor, but as a prisoner,” Reza said.
Alfred P. Rubin, a professor of international law at Tufts University who wrote a book on piracy, said there had not been a major pirate prosecution in the United States since 1885, when the American ship Ambrose Light was attacked by pirates.
Establishing his true age could prove difficult because the anarchy that has existed in Somalia over the past two decades makes it unlikely that any birth records exist.
Lawyers could send Muse to a dentist to help determine his age by analyzing his teeth, a solution courts have used in the past for Somali defendants.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck cited conflicting testimony that his father gave about the ages of his children during telephone testimony from Somalia and his own failure to testify about his age as reasons to find Muse could be treated by the courts as an adult.
Jamal said his organization was working to get a lawyer for Muse and to find if he has medical or mental problems.
“What we have is a confused teenager, overnight thrown into the highest level of the criminal justice system in the United States out of a country where there’s no law at all,” Jamal said. Muse speaks little English, he said.
U.S. officials said the teenager was brought to New York in part because the FBI office here has a history of handling cases in Africa involving major crimes against Americans, such as the al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.