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Because international law permits prosecuting acts of aiding and abetting piracy committed while not on the high seas, the Charming Betsy canon -- the judicial presumption that an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains -- is no constraint on the scope of a charge of aiding and abetting piracy under 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 2, 1651.
Ali Mohamed Ali, a Somali national, helped negotiate the ransom of a merchant vessel and its crew after they were captured by marauders in the Gulf of Aden. Though he claimed merely to have defused a tense situation, the government believed he was in cahoots with these brigands from the very start. Ali eventually made his way to the United States, where he was arrested and indicted for conspiring to commit and aiding and abetting two offenses: piracy on the high seas and hostage taking. The government said Ali is a pirate; he protested that he is not. Though a trial will determine whether he is in fact a pirate, the question before the court is whether the government's allegations are legally sufficient. And the answer to that question is complicated by a factor the district court deemed critical: Ali's alleged involvement was limited to acts he committed on land and in territorial waters—not upon the high seas. Thus, the district court restricted the charge of aiding and abetting piracy to his conduct on the high seas and dismissed the charge of conspiracy to commit piracy. Eventually, the district court also dismissed the hostage taking charges, concluding that prosecuting him for his acts abroad would violate his right to due process.
Did the Charming Betsy canon constrain the scope of a charge of aiding and abetting piracy under 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 2, 1651?
The court held that because international law permitted prosecuting acts of AAP committed while not on the high seas, the Charming Betsy canon -- the judicial presumption that an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remained -- did not constrain the scope of the § 2(a) AAP charge. By defining piracy in terms of the law of nations, § 1651 incorporated extraterritorial application of the international piracy law, indicating Congress's intent to subject extraterritorial acts of piracy while not in international waters to prosecution. Because conspiracy was not part of the international definition of piracy, and § 371 did not expressly reject international law, Charming Betsy precluded prosecution for conspiracy to commit piracy. Section 1203's extraterritorial scope as to HT was clear; it fulfilled U.S. treaty obligations. And, § 1203(a) applied equally to attempts and conspiracies. Also, the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages provided global notice that certain generally condemned acts were subject to prosecution by any party to the treaty, which was all that due process required.