* Muse pleaded guilty to attacks in May
* Judge finds him leader of pirates, cries over victims (Adds quotes from court, background)
By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, Feb 16 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced a Somali pirate to 33 years and nine months in prison on Wednesday for his role in the 2009 seizure of the Maersk Alabama container ship in the Indian Ocean.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse -- the sole surviving pirate after others were killed by U.S. Navy marksmen in a high-seas rescue -- was charged with kidnapping, hijacking and hostage-taking.
In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty in May.
Muse was extradited to the United States following the April 2009 attack on the Maersk Alabama, in which kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips was rescued while three captors around him were shot dead by sailors on another vessel.
“I ask for forgiveness to all the people that I harmed, and also the U.S. government,” Muse told the court through a Somali interpreter. “I got my hands into something that was more powerful than me.”
Muse was 16 at the time of the attacks, defense attorney Fiona Doherty said, although his exact age is unknown. Doherty had asked for a 27-year sentence, citing his young age and his growing up in the “failed state” of Somalia.
Manhattan federal court judge Loretta Preska broke into tears as she read aloud letters about the ordeal from the ship’s crew and their family members. She said Muse was the leader of the band of pirates and should receive a stiff sentence to deter other pirates.
“(The pirates) appeared to relish even their most depraved acts of physical and psychological violence and abandoned all pretense of humane treatment for their captives,” Preska said.
None of the ship’s crew was killed.
The hijacking of ships near the coast of Somalia, where an Islamist insurgency and lawlessness has created a pirate safe haven, has cost the shipping industry millions of dollars.
“For five days that must have seemed like an eternity to his victims, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse terrorized the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
The fight against piracy has been hampered by legal ambiguities over the appropriate venue to prosecute captured suspects. A U.N. envoy this month proposed special courts be set up rapidly in the Somali enclaves of Somaliland and Puntland, and in Tanzania, to try captured pirates. (Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Mark Egan and Jackie Frank)