Will Germany Release an American-Killer?

In the next few days, Israel and Hizbullah are supposed to consummate their exchange of prisoners, bodies, and information. Germany has been the mediator in the deal. It wouldn’t be the business of the United States, except now there is a report that the Germans have promised to release a brutal Hizbullah terrorist, who in June 1985 hijacked an American airliner to Beirut, and tortured and killed a U.S. Navy diver.

The report is by Israeli journalist Aluf Benn in today’s Haaretz. Benn states that in return for Hizbullah’s disclosure about the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, Germany has “slated” three persons for release—a Hizbullah operative and two Iranian agents—all imprisoned in Germany for terror attacks. “One of them,” the report goes on to say, “was convicted of murdering an American naval officer; he took orders from Imad Mughniyeh, who coordinates international terror strikes for Hezbollah.” The report relates that Germany has “promised to release” this terrorist, Muhammad Ali Hamadei, now serving a life sentence for the June 1985 hijacking of TWA 847, and for the murder of one of the passengers, Navy diver Robert Stethem.

I have no idea who is feeding Benn with information, but this story follows the newspaper’s lead story from the day before, in which Benn alluded to the same thing. So someone is floating a trial balloon—and it’s time to shoot it down, before it gains any altitude at all.

Who is Muhammad Ali Hamadei? I’m going to let Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) tell you that. This is from a statement he made on the floor of the Senate in May 1989, congratulating a German court for sentencing Hamadei to life imprisonment:

The facts of the Hamadei case shock the conscience. On June 14, 1985, Trans World Airline flight 847 departed Athens International Airport enroute to Rome, Italy with 153 passengers and crew on board, most of them Americans. Approximately 10 minutes into the flight, two hijackers, later identified as Mohammad Hamadei and Hasan Izz-al-din, commandeered the aircraft and ran through the plane brandishing hand grenades and a pistol while randomly striking the seated passengers on the head, neck, and shoulders with their weapons. The hijackers forced Chief Stewardess Uli Derickson to the flight deck area and gained access to the cockpit. The hijackers then pistol-whipped the flight crew inside the cockpit and ordered the pilot to fly to Algiers. The aircraft ultimately flew between Beirut and Algiers several times during the next 2 days while the hijackers retained control of the plane.

Once in control of the aircraft, the hijackers ordered Derickson to collect all passports and separate those of U.S. citizens and military personnel. The terrorists then ordered the military personnel into the first-class section one at a time for questioning, beginning with Navy diver Robert Stethem. The hijackers bound his arms together with an electrical cord, cutting off his circulation, and beat him until he was unconscious. Several other passengers were also beaten. Stethem regained consciousness, only to be shot in the head in cold blood. The hijackers dumped his body onto the tarmac in Beirut before several more hijackers boarded the plane for its flight back to Algiers.

The terrorists eventually abandoned the plane after its final landing in Beirut. Thirty-nine passengers were removed from the aircraft and held hostage in various locations in Beirut for 17 additional days before they finally were freed on June 30, 1985.

Hamadei, a Lebanese Shiite Muslim, was arrested in Frankfurt, West Germany. A number of the Members of this body, including this Senator, believe that the West Germans should have extradited Hamadei to the United States to stand trial in Federal district court, but that did not come to pass. While I regret the West German decision not to honor our extradition request, I commend the Germans for bringing this terrorist to justice and I applaud the West German court for imposing the maximum sentence of life imprisonment upon Hamadei.

A bit more context: the West Germans had arrested Hamadei on January 13, 1987, at the Frankfurt airport, through which he was trying to smuggle explosives. The United States immediately requested his extradition; Hizbullah immediately abducted two West Germans in Beirut, and threatened to kill them if Hamadei were extradited. That pretty much solved the dilemma for the West Germans: they would try Hamadei themselves. Even a personal appeal from President Ronald Reagan to Chancellor Helmut Kohl didn’t change their minds.

It’s been seventeen years since Hamadei’s arrest, and almost fifteen years since his conviction. In fact, there isn’t a sentence long enough for Hamadei, but he was sentenced to life, and life he should serve. He didn’t commit his ruthless crime against Germany or Israel, and Germany has no moral right to pardon or release him. His co-hijacker, Hasan Izz al-Din, is still on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists for his part in the same hijacking and murder. Izz al-Din’s wanted poster offers a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to his arrest. From the U.S. point of view, the 1985 TWA hijacking is a fresh crime, and now would be a good time to remind the Germans of just that.

Want to send a reminder yourself? Tell Senator Specter to speak out again. (Contact information here.) Back in 1989, on the Senate floor, Senator Specter praised the West German criminal justice system “for convicting Mohammad Hamadei and imposing the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.” The German government should be told exactly what it would hear on the Senate floor, and across the United States, were it ever to free this American-killer.

More background: The failure to secure Hamadei’s extradition in 1987 is taught as a case study in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Many persons were interviewed for the study. The extradition, according to this account, became a bone of contention among the Justice Department, the State Department, and the National Security Council. In the end, Reagan gave Kohl an exit, much to the consternation of Justice.