Law in Contemporary Society

Abudallah Karim Speaks: An interview with the Somali pirate turned law student

Julian Preston | April 11, 2019

This past Friday is the ten year anniversary of the hijacking of the ship Maersk Alabama by four Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia. After a failed negotiation, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates to rescue the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips. Abudallah Karim, the sole surviving pirate, was captured and sent to the U.S. for trial. At the time, Karim was known by his nom de guerre, Abduhl Wali-i-Musi. He was 16 at the time. Karim was tried as an adult on piracy charges, which carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The trial became a cause célèbre. Karim was represented by a team of all stars, including attorneys who have represented O. J. Simpson. After a two week trial, Karim was found guilty of piracy and was sentenced to life in prison. In January 2013, Karim was pardoned by President Obama. While Karim was in prison, he was able to study English and earned a high school diploma. After being released from prison, Karim was allowed to stay in the US to seek political asylum. He later attended SUNY Stony Brook, with the financial help of the local Somali community. Now, he is a second year law student at Yale Law School at New Haven, Connecticut.

Preston: How is life since you’ve been released?

Karim: It was unreal. It was like a dream. I am mostly glad that I can see my family again. The Koran says, “when you are free, nominate.” It takes some effort to acclimate to the life outside the prison, but my faith really helps me through. Also, I have a few really great mentors who gave me advices along the way.

Preston: How were you treated by other inmates?

Karim: In the first year, I was in solitary confinement since they thought of me as some sort of cannibal and very very dangerous. [chuckle] I just thought, “Oh, God, this is not what I have imagine the United States to be.” I always thought the United States is the greatest country on earth, but the only things I saw every day are a bunk bed and a toilet. Only after a year in solitary confinement, I was transferred to a regular cell in Petersburg, Virginia. Then I was allowed to receive mails, including books and newspapers. I used them to study English. I knew some pidgin English before but in prison I was able to practice with some of the guards. Since most of the guards were from Virginia, I was even able to acquire a southern drawl. My cell mate was an Indian engineer, Anand. He was in jail because he downloaded some computer codes from Lehman Brothers. Anand is very smart. He taught me everything, from English to Physics. He is in India now, working for a software company. I am still in touch with him. I plan to visit him this coming summer.

Preston: How did you cope with the solitary confinement?

Karim: It was tough. The lights were on, and the lights were always on. There were also a lot of verbal abuses from the guards. Most of the words I didn’t understand at the time. Also whenever the guards walked by, the sounds just reverberated in your ears. You couldn’t sleep. I asked for a Koran and my request was refused first. Then my lawyer got involved and I was able to read the Koran with the help of a dictionary. That helped me to calm down. The solitary confinement changed me. You can call that involuntary metamorphosis.

Preston: Why did you decide to stay in the US?

Karim: When I got news that I was pardoned, I had no plan at all. I was content to stay in prison for the rest of my life. When I was young, I wanted to be a scientist. I used to attend goats for my uncle. I have always lived with animals and I love them. Anand taught me physics and chemistry. I really liked these subjects. Somalia was still a mess at the time. My lawyer, Mr. Fabozzi, was on the board of trustee of SUNY Stony Brook. So I was able to attend college to study biology.

Preston: Why biology?

Karim: I wanted to be a doctor at the time and everyone told me it is easier to become a doctor if you study biology.

Preston: What made you give up the dream to become a doctor?

Karim:I messed up my MCAT. [chuckle] I had this problem with blood. I cannot see it, or smell it. Every time I feel it, I had this reenactment right in front of my eyes. The reenactment of what happened on the lifeboat. [silence] I guess I cannot really be a doctor after all.

Preston: Why did you want to be a lawyer?

Karim: Emm. I don’t really know. I was helped by a lot of lawyer since I came to the U.S. I really appreciate that. I think being a lawyer can do a lot of good to people. I want to be that kind of lawyer, a healer of sort.

Preston: How do you like law school?

Karim: It is a little bit overwhelming, especially the first semester. There is a lot of reading. Everyone is very bright. I had never worked this hard in my life.

Preston: Which class did you like the most so far?

Karim: Admiralty Law. My case is in the casebook.

Julian Preston is an editor of New Haven Register.

-- XinpingZhu - 23 Apr 2009


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:40 - IanSullivan
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