RICHMOND, Va. – Two Navy SEALs drowned last month while trying to board a vessel that was intercepted by U.S. naval forces in the Arabian Sea. On Thursday, federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint against four foreign nationals they say were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components on the vessel.
The four sailors were later taken to Virginia where they were criminally charged. Material witness warrants were filed against another 10 crew members.
In an affidavit supporting the criminal complaint, an FBI agent wrote that the sailors admitted they had departed from Iran after at least one of the them initially claimed they left from Pakistan. All four sailors had Pakistani identifications cards.
Prosecutors said they were smuggling missile components for the type of weapons used by Houthi rebel forces in recent weeks.
Here’s a look at the case and what comes next:
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE ARABIAN SEA?
On the night of Jan. 11, U.S. Central Command Navy forces, including Navy SEALs, along with members of the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team, boarded an unflagged vessel described as a dhow in international waters of the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Somalia.
U.S. officials have said that while boarding the boat, Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher J. Chambers slipped into the gap created by high waves between the vessel and the SEALs’ combatant craft. As Chambers fell, Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram jumped in to try to save him, according to U.S. officials familiar with what happened. Both men were lost at sea. Efforts to find and rescue them were unsuccessful.
During a search of the ship, U.S. forces found and seized what an FBI official described as Iranian-made advanced conventional weaponry, including critical parts for medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, a warhead, and propulsion and guidance components.
The FBI affidavit said the type of weaponry found on the vessel is consistent with weaponry used by Houthi rebel forces in recent attacks on merchant ships and U.S. military ships in the region.
WHY CAN THE U.S. ARREST FOREIGN NATIONALS IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS?
Navy forces were conducting an “authorized flag verification” when they boarded the vessel in international waters.
U.S. authorities can board a ship to verify if it has the authority to fly its flag or to determine the nationality of a vessel without a flag. Any country has a right under international law to board vessels and check for documentation of its nationality.
In this case, U.S. forces determined the vessel was violating international law by not having any flag in international waters. That made it a “vessel without nationality” subject to U.S. jurisdiction, the FBI affidavit states.
Navy forces ultimately determined the dhow was unsafe and unseaworthy and sunk the vessel “according to protocol,” the FBI agent wrote.
All 14 sailors on the vessel were brought onto the USS Lewis B. Puller and were later taken to Virginia.
Martin Davies, director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University Law School, said flag verifications are more common in drug investigations because ships smuggling drugs often conceal any signs of identification.
“It’s clearly permitted under international law,” Davies told The Associated Press. “Any country would have the authority to do this.”
Some countries may not like the U.S. “throwing its weight around in another part of the world,” Davis noted.
“But that’s a political thing, not a legal thing,” he said.
WHY CAN PROSECUTORS HOLD THE 10 CREW MEMBERS?
The other 10 crew members are being detained under the federal material witness law. It allows courts to issue warrants for the arrest and detention of a person if their testimony is “material in a criminal proceeding,” and if it “may become impracticable to secure the presence of the person by subpoena.”
The law attracted attention and sparked controversy when it was used in international terrorism investigations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Defense lawyers have criticized the law because it can result in people being detained for lengthy periods even though they are not charged with or suspected of committing a crime.
A 2014 report by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General identified 112 cases in which material witnesses were detained from 2000 until 2012. The median period of time those witnesses were detained was 26 days.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE MEN WHO WERE CHARGED?
All four sailors are being held in custody pending preliminary and detention hearings scheduled for Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Richmond. A judge will determine whether to detain the defendants without bail as they await trial.
Muhammad Pahlawan is charged with attempting to smuggle advanced missile component and providing false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the vessel.
Pahlawan’s co-defendants — Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah and Izhar Muhammad — were charged with providing false information.
Melissa O’Boyle, Ullah’s attorney, and Charles Gavin, Muhammad’s attorney, declined to comment on the charges. Attorneys for the other two defendants did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Friday.
Kunzelman reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.
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