German Trade-off Suspected in Release of Terrorist Killer

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, December 22, 2005

German Trade-off Suspected in Release of Terrorist Killer

(CNSNews.com) - Germany freed the murderer of a U.S. Navy diver despite personal intervention by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the State Department has confirmed, amid speculation that Berlin let the Hizballah terrorist go as part of a deal to free a German hostage in Iraq.

Mohammed Ali Hamadi flew to Lebanon after being released last week, 18 years after he was sentenced to "life" imprisonment for hijacking a U.S. airliner in 1985 and killing 23-year-old Petty Officer Robert Stethem.

Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appeared unmoved Wednesday by American requests that Hamadi be handed over.

"They could have asked Germany to hand him over to the United States," Lebanon's Daily Star quoted him as telling reporters. "Why are they asking us?"

In fact, the U.S. applied for Hamadi's extradition from Germany when he was first arrested in 1987, and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday it had repeatedly "over the years" since made it clear that it would like to see him stand trial in a U.S. court.

"At this point, I think what I can assure anybody who's listening, including Mr. Hamadi, is that we will track him down," McCormack said. "We will find him, and we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he's done."

TWA Flight 847 was seized in June 1985 during an Athens-Rome flight and diverted to Lebanon with its 153 passengers and crew. The terrorists badly beat Stethem over a period of time before shooting him and dumping his body onto the Beirut runway.

"Let the American pig suffer," Hamadi declared of the 23-year-old, according to eyewitness testimony given during an Oct. 2001 District Court case in Washington, D.C.

The hijacking crisis dragged on for 17 days, during which the remaining hostages were freed in stages.

Hamadi was arrested in Germany two years later, after he flew into a Frankfurt airport in possession of explosives. Three other men indicted for the crimes remain on the FBI's "most wanted terrorists" list, each of them "believed to be in Lebanon" and the subject of a $5 million U.S. reward.

One of the three is Imad Fayez Mugniyah, the notorious head of the security apparatus of Hizballah, the Lebanon-based terror group sponsored by Syria and Iran. Mugniyah's deputy during the 1980s hostage crisis in Lebanon was Abdul-Hadi Hamadi, Mohammed's brother. He remains a top figure: The Daily Star on Wednesday described Abdul-Hadi Hamadi as "a senior special security official within Hizballah."

McCormack said the attorney-general had personally asked the German Justice Ministry "within the last month or so" to ensure that Hamadi serve out his full term.

"We thought it was important that he serve out his entire term, which in this case would have been 25 years. That didn't happen."

McCormack conceded that the Germans had acted according to their legal system.

'Diplomatic gesture'

In Europe, however, media outlets commented on the timing of Hamadi's release, which came shortly after Iraqi terrorists set free the first German national taken hostage there.

Hamadi reportedly flew to Lebanon last Thursday. Three days later, Berlin announced that Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist taken hostage in Iraq on Nov. 25, was safely in German hands.

Officials declined to provide details of the negotiations with the hostage-takers. Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said Monday that doing so could benefit the perpetrators of future kidnappings.

ISN Security Watch, a resource of the Swiss-based Center for Security Studies, said the release followed negotiations by a German foreign ministry crisis group.

"Several officials have said Osthoff's release did not involve paying ransom money, but was rather a 'diplomatic gesture.' It remains a source of speculation what that gesture was."

The Deutsche Welle daily wondered whether there had been a "trade-off" involving Hamadi and Osthoff. It recalled that German authorities had in the past tried to use Hamadi as a bargaining chip to free German hostages held in Lebanon.

George Assaf, a lawyer specializing in international law, was quoted by Lebanon's Daily Star as also implying a link.

"Before the incident in Iraq involving the release of a German hostage, there were no procedures being taken in Germany for his [Hamadi's] release," Assaf said.

If the allegation is true, the implications are significant.

"The swap of a hostage kidnapped by Iraqi guerrillas for a Lebanese Hizballah terrorist exposes for the first time the clandestine operational links between the Hizballah and Iraqi guerrillas and fellow terrorists," commented the Israeli intelligence website debka.com.

German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Jager was quoted by wire services as denying any link between the Hamadi and Osthoff releases. McCormack told a press briefing earlier this week that he was "not aware of anything that would indicate there was any quid pro quo there."

Why did Germany refuse to extradite?

Reuters and several other media outlets asserted this week that Germany rejected Washington's 1987 U.S. request for Hamadi's extradition because he could have faced the death penalty in America.

But according to a detailed case study on the extradition request, prepared by David Kennedy for the Project for the Study and Analysis of Terrorism at Harvard in 1988, the formal U.S. request for Hamadi's extradition the previous year included a paper signed by a top legal official giving assurances that the U.S. would not request capital punishment for Hamadi.

Although the Justice Department was reluctant, Kennedy wrote: "There was no real debate in Washington about doing so, since German law absolutely forbade extradition for capital crimes unless such assurances were given."

McCormack said this week he was not sure whether the issue of the death penalty had entered into the German decision at the time.

The real reason for Germany's refusal appears to have been more complicated.

The online version of Der Spiegel reported this week that the extradition request was turned down "out of concern for the safety of two German businessmen who had been kidnapped in Lebanon."

ISN Security Watch, too, said Berlin refused to hand over Hamadi "partly because it wanted to protect two German citizens being held hostage in Lebanon at the time."

Contemporaneous reports back that up.

According to data on the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT)'s Terrorism Knowledge Base, a week after Hamadi was arrested, Hizballah seized two German nationals in Beirut, Rudolf Cordes and Alfred Schmidt.

The group demanded that Germany not extradite Hamadi to the U.S. and that it release him.

Days later, German police arrested another brother of Hamadi, Abbas, as he flew into Germany from Beirut. He was charged with having organized the kidnappings of Cordes and Schmidt, and the terrorists still holding the two Germans added Abbas Hamadi's release to their growing list of demands.

Berlin didn't release either Hamadi brother but did refuse to extradite Mohammed to the U.S., putting him on trial in Germany instead -- although the crimes had been committed against a U.S. sailor and an American airliner, carrying mostly American passengers.

Both brothers were subsequently convicted and jailed -- Abbas for 13 years for arranging the kidnapping of Cordes and Schmidt, and Mohammed for the TWA hijacking, the killing of Stethem and possession of explosives.

Schmidt was released by his captors in Beirut in September 1987, and Cordes one year later.

Yet another German citizen, Rudolf Scharay, was kidnapped in Beirut in connection with the case, this time in January 1988.

An Institute for Counter Terrorism report says his captors demanded the release of both Hamadi brothers, but Scharay was released two months later, "after Iran and Syria put pressure on the kidnappers."

Purple heart

After the hijacking, Stethem, who hailed from a Navy family in Waldorf, Maryland, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The U.S. Navy later named an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer after him.

A federal judge in 2001 awarded the Stethem family more than $300 million in punitive damages from the Iranian regime because of Iran's sponsorship of Hizballah.

The National Law Journal said a family lawyer at the time expressed doubts that more than a fraction of that amount would be recovered because that would require the seizing of Iranian assets in the U.S.

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