Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse grew up destitute in Somalia, the oldest of 12 children 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 a US cargo ship and took the captain hostage before three of them were killed by US 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 go to the US.
On Tuesday, the teenager made it to the US 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 US 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 1.57m 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 in the US has thrust the skinny teenager into the international spotlight and raised legal questions about whether the US 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.
The government says Muse is 18. A federal judge agreed on 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 US 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 in New York on Monday only because he had never seen a camera in his life.
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, said by telephone on 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.”