BEIRUT, Lebanon – A hijacker in a terrorist drama that riveted America — the 1985 seizure of a TWA jet in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed — has returned home to Lebanon, paroled by Germany after serving 19 years of a life sentence.
The United States said Tuesday it wants Lebanon to turn over Mohammed Ali Hamadi for trial in the killing of the diver, Robert Dean Stethem.
“We have demonstrated over the years that when we believe an individual is responsible for the murder of innocent American civilians, that we will track them down and that we will bring them to justice in the United States,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
He said the United States is talking with the Lebanese government about Hamadi, but the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon.
Hamadi was in temporary Lebanese custody, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations with the Lebanese are confidential. A senior Lebanese judicial official contacted by The Associated Press declined to comment.
Trans World Airlines Flight 847, with 145 passengers and nine crew members, was flying from Athens to Rome on June 14, 1985, when it was hijacked by Shiite Muslim militants demanding the release of hundreds of Lebanese from Israeli jails.
During a 17-day ordeal, the plane was forced to crisscross the Mediterranean from Lebanon to Algeria, landing in Beirut three times before it was finally allowed to remain there.
An urgent radio transmission from the unflappable TWA pilot, John Testrake, to the Beirut control tower was broadcast around the world: “We must, I repeat, we must land repeat, at Beirut. … Ground, TWA 847, they are threatening to kill the passengers, they are threatening to kill the passengers. We must have fuel, we must get fuel. … They are beating the passengers, they are beating the passengers.”
The ordeal produced one of the most enduring images of terrorism: a picture of Testrake leaning out of the cockpit window as a hijacker clamped a hand over his mouth and waved a pistol.
On the second day of the seizure, the hijackers beat and shot to death Stethem, 23, of Waldorf, Md., and dumped his body onto the runway in Beirut.
Witnesses later identified Hamadi as having beaten the tied-up Stethem. According to testimony at Hamadi’s trial, when Stethem complained about his bonds, Hamadi responded: “Let the pig suffer.”
The plane’s flight engineer testified at the 1989 trial that Hamadi bragged he had killed Stethem.
On Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt, Germany, announced Hamadi’s release, saying he had been freed and left the country several days earlier after his case came up for a regular legally mandated review by a parole court.
Hamadi arrived Saturday in his homeland, Lebanon, on a commercial flight from Germany, a Lebanese security official said. An official with the Shiite Hezbollah guerrilla group confirmed his return. Neither would give details and both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
It was not known where Hamadi went after arriving in Lebanon and efforts to locate him Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The United States had sought Hamadi’s extradition when he was caught in January 1987 as he went through customs at Frankfurt Airport with liquid explosives in his luggage. The Germans, who have no death penalty, insisted on prosecuting him. A German court convicted him of both the hijacking and of Stethem’s death.
McCormack said the U.S. was disappointed with Germany’s decision to release Hamadi before he served his full sentence. He said the United States sought jurisdiction over Hamadi after he was arrested and over the years has repeatedly sought to have him tried in the United States.
Hamadi was indicted in absentia in 1985 in federal court in Washington. He was charged with air piracy resulting in murder, among other crimes. It is not clear whether he would face the death penalty if tried under that indictment, since the federal death penalty was not reinstated until 1988.
German Justice Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer said the matter was handled by the state prosecutor in Frankfurt. “The Justice Ministry does not have an extradition request” from the United States, she said.
The U.S. State Department said it didn’t renew the earlier request because its extradition treaty doesn’t permit Germany to extradite someone on the same charges for which he has already been convicted.
Stethem’s brother called the release “absolutely disturbing,” and blamed the U.S. government for not doing enough to prevent Hamadi from being set free.
“Rob gave his life. He gave his full measure and I haven’t seen anybody give as much to securing his killer as he did in life defending his country,” Kenneth Stethem said.
The family hopes the Bush administration will pressure Lebanon to turn Hamadi over for trial.
“We’ll be after him,” said Stethem’s mother, Patricia. “We won’t let it rest.”
Still at large are Hamadi’s three accomplices — Hassan Izz-Al-Din, Ali Atwa and Imad Mughniyeh, the former Hezbollah security chief who is also accused in the kidnappings of Americans in Beirut — who each were indicted in the United States and have a $5 million U.S. bounty on their heads.
Stethem was the only passenger aboard Flight 847 to die, although others were beaten. The other passengers were freed in stages, either in Beirut or Algiers.
A final group of 39 passengers were taken off the plane June 16 and held in locations in Beirut, where they would remain captive until June 30. The siege ended after
Israel announced the release of 31 Lebanese prisoners — although Israel and the United States insisted the release was not connected to the hijacking.
Former hostages have recounted their terror during the hours trapped on the flight as the hijackers collected passports, trying to determine which passengers were Jewish.
Flight attendant Uli Derickson, who acted as a translator for the hijackers, reportedly hid the passports of some passengers with Jewish names and stepped in when hijackers began beating a second U.S. sailor. She died this year at age 60; Testrake died in 1996 at age 68.
The hijacking was a dramatic standoff in a tumultuous period for Lebanon, which was torn by a civil war that saw the Israeli and Syrian militaries and Shiite, Christian and Palestinian militias battling on its soil.
Militants had already repeatedly targeted the United States. Suicide bombers hit U.S. Embassy buildings and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, killing 328 people, and militants kidnapped several Americans in Lebanon.
The ordeal did not end with the release of the hostages. Shortly after Hamadi was arrested, his brother, Abbas Ali Hamadi, and other kidnappers snatched a German engineer from his Beirut hotel room, threatening to kill him if Hamadi was extradited to the U.S.
Abbas Ali Hamadi was arrested in Frankfurt and was sentenced in 1988 to 13 years in prison for the kidnapping.
Hezbollah denies involvement in the hijacking. The group is on a State Department list of terrorist organizations.