May 13, 2:43 AM EDT

Appeals court in Va. to hear piracy sentencing dispute

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- The federal government is seeking life sentences for five Somali pirates who attacked a U.S. Navy ship that they mistook for a cargo vessel.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on the issue Wednesday in Richmond.

Prosecutors claim that U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson erred in ruling that life sentences would amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment under the facts of this case. The defendants were given prison terms ranging from 30 to 42 1/2 years for their roles in the 2010 attack on the USS Ashland off the coast of Africa.

The pirates told the Navy that they were human smugglers stranded at sea and that they only fired a weapon to get the sailors' attention to rescue them.

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