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By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trial of a Somali man accused of piracy off the Horn of Africa began on Monday, with prosecutors portraying him as a ransom-hungry negotiator and his lawyers defending him as an intelligence source for the United States who served as a translator.
Ali Mohamed Ali, a former Washington, D.C., resident, is charged with helping Somali pirates who seized a Danish cargo vessel in November 2008 negotiate a $1.7 million ransom to free the 13 crew members and the ship. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julieanne Himelstein told the jury in U.S. District Court in Washington that Ali was not a mere translator for the pirates but was a negotiator who arranged for a $75,000 side payment for himself after the 71-day hijacking was over.
"The defendant didn't have to have a gun. His mouth was his gun, and that was the most important gun on board because it was the gun that got them the money," she said in her opening statement.
But defense attorney Matthew Peed said Ali, who was hoping to obtain U.S. residency, had been a source in Somalia for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and later advised the Danish shipping company, Clipper Group, about Somali pirates.
The first thing he did after the ship was released was to contact DHS with details about the ordeal, he said.
"That's not the action of a pirate conspirator, of a hostage taker," Peed said.
He said Ali had requested the $75,000 side deal to get agreement from one faction of the pirates that was demanding a larger share.
Armed pirates seized the 7,000-tonne cargo ship CEC Future in the Gulf of Aden on November 7, 2008, while it was sailing from Belgium to Indonesia.
The Future was taken to the Somali port of Eyl, where it remained until after Clipper agreed to pay the ransom and the last pirates left the ship on January 16, 2010.
An affidavit states that Ali, who had come to the United States in 1981 at 19 on a student visa, contacted Clipper via the ship's satellite phone to give it the pirates' initial demand for $7 million.
Ali, who returned to Somalia in 2007, helped the pirates in gathering and identifying the crew's documents and dismissed many of Clipper's offers as unacceptable to the pirates. The ship's captain believed Ali "not only represented the pirates but directed the course of the negotiations," the affidavit says.
Ali is charged with piracy, conspiracy, attacking a vessel and hostage-taking, and faces life in prison if convicted. He has been held in jail for two and a half years.
Niels Mathiesen, who was head of safety and quality control at Clipper when the hijacking occurred, testified for the prosecution that Ali was the first person the company had talked to from the ship after the seizure.
But under defense questioning, he said Clipper had sought out Ali to try to identify and prosecute pirates involved in the seizure. "We used all sources available to us," he said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Douglas Royalty)