WASHINGTON (AP) — Jurors in the piracy trial of a Somali man who served as a translator during a hostage siege heard him making demands on a recorded phone conversation with a negotiator for the ship's owner.
On the Nov. 12, 2008, call, which was played in Ali Mohamed Ali's trial this week, a negotiator for the Denmark company Clipper Group tells Ali that the two sides need to go back to negotiations and "not through threats like this one."
"No, no, no, no, no," Ali replies. "Listen, I'm telling you clearly what they are saying. I don't know how, how far they can go with it." He demands that the negotiator get back to him within a half-hour.
But the ship's captain, Andrey Nozhkin, who also participated in the call, testified that Ali whispered a comforting word to him after the call was over: "Bluffing."
The two images — an aggressive negotiator and a calming presence — are at the center of Ali's trial. The government alleges that Ali negotiated a ransom on behalf of Somali pirates during a 2008 takeover of a Danish merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden, near the Horn of Africa. Ali's lawyers say he was essentially a prisoner himself and tried to help the crew as best he could.
Nozhkin, who wrapped up two days of testimony Friday, said that at the time of the call — about five weeks into the ordeal — negotiations were at a dead end. The captain said that Ali had said if the pirates didn't get what they wanted, the ship's navigation equipment would be destroyed and the crew would be taken ashore.
Testifying for the government, Nozhkin recalled how Ali instructed him to make the call to the negotiator: "My speech was supposed to be emotional" so the company believed how serious the situation was. With one of the pirates pointing a gun at him, Nozhkin probably didn't have to do much acting. He said Ali gave him an "outline" of what to say, but Nozhkin also made it clear that some of the words weren't of his choosing.
Nozhkin, who is from Estonia, testified in Russian through a translator; although he speaks English, it's not his first language. But jurors heard him speaking English on the call, telling Clipper's negotiator, "Let them think about the crew also, otherwise they can lose not only the vessel but the crew also."
The pirates were "not bluffing," Nozhkin said on the call. "They're not joking. The negotiation is finished. You have to make an offer, OK?"
Ali then gets on the phone and says, "You heard what he's saying and that's the truth. That (is) exactly what they want to do and it is your mistake by just dragging your feet."
Pirates had seized the M/V CEC Future in early November 2008, and Ali boarded the boat a couple of days later. Nozhkin described Ali as wearing "beautiful" white clothing, in contrast to the pirates' clothes, some of which looked like rags. Ali also had an expensive-looking suitcase and was treated with respect and curiosity by the pirates.
Nozhkin added that Ali made a point of saying he wasn't a pirate. Ali, an English speaker, soon contacted the company and relayed the pirates' demands, Nozhkin said, and also reviewed outgoing messages that the captain sent to the company.
Nozhkin said he had a "business-like relationship" with Ali, but that the two men would also talk about home and family. "We were not two soulless robots," he said. During cross-examination by one of Ali's lawyers, Matthew J. Peed, the captain said that Ali let him and other crew members use his cellphone to call their families. And Nozhkin said he never saw Ali with a weapon, and didn't recall being threatened or insulted by Ali.
As negotiations dragged on, Ali's stock with the pirates began to plummet. According to Nozhkin, Ali said he had discussed a percentage of the ransom he might get — 10 percent at the beginning, gradually decreasing to 1 percent and finally, nothing. Ali had told him that Clipper would pay him a bonus, and the pirates "thought Ali was playing both sides." According to the government indictment, Ali received a separate ransom of $75,000. Ali's lawyers say the payment he received from Clipper came two weeks after the siege ended.
At one point, Ali was locked in his room for two or three days while another interpreter came on the ship.
The pirates, who initially demanded $7 million, finally received a $1.7 million ransom in January 2009, which was delivered in a container with a parachute that was dropped from a plane. Nozhkin said the pirates took the money into his office to count it, and that he didn't remember seeing Ali there, although the captain said he wasn't there the entire time. Nozhkin injected some levity into the trial when he recounted a joke he told the pirates after opening the container: "I said "Oops, there's no money in it,'" prompting laughter from the jury.
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