The Bush administration said Wednesday it will do everything it can to bring a Lebanese airline hijacker, released from a German prison last week, to justice in the United States for the 1985 murder of a U.S. Navy diver. The wanted man, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, was sent back to Lebanon by German authorities.
The United States had contacted German authorities at senior levels to advise against the early release of Hamadi, and U.S. officials are now in contact with the Lebanese government in an effort to arrange his handover for trial.
Hamadi was released from prison in Germany late last week after serving 19 years of a nominal life term for his role in the 1985 hijacking by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah of an American TWA jetliner on a flight from Athens to Rome.
The two week hijack episode was one of the most spectacular acts of terror of that time and it was marked by the brutal murder of a passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, who was shot and his body tossed onto the airport tarmac in Beirut by the hijackers.
Hamadi was arrested at the Frankfurt airport two years later and convicted of murder, air piracy and possession of explosives. Though life terms in Germany normally involve 25 years of imprisonment, Hamadi was freed last week after 19 years despite an appeal from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Bush administration officials have made clear they consider the punishment insufficient, and say there are ample legal grounds to bring him to trial in the United States for multiple crimes including the killing of Mr. Stethem.
At a news briefing Wednesday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack served notice the United States will spare no effort to see that Hamadi is brought to justice:
"What I can assure anybody who's listening, including Mr. Hamadi, is that we will track him down, we will find him, and we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he's done," said Mr. McCormack. "We will make every effort working with the Lebanese authorities or whomever else to see that he faces trial for the murder of Mr. Stethem."
A senior official who spoke to reporters here said U.S. efforts to gain custody of Hamadi have been through diplomatic channels.
But he did not rule out other methods, and cited the case of Mohammed Abbas a Palestinian terrorist who masterminded a 1985 cruise ship hijacking in the Mediterranean in which a wheelchair-bound American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed.
Abbas was captured by U.S. forces near Baghdad in 2003 and died in custody in Iraq several months later of what Pentagon officials said were natural causes.
The senior official said there is no timeline for the apprehension of Hamadi and that in his words, "no matter how long it takes, we are going to get him."
The State Department late Tuesday took the unusual step of making public a secret U.S. Justice Department indictment of Hamadi issued in late 1985 and charging him with a list of 15 criminal offenses including air piracy resulting in murder, hostage taking and placing explosives on a commercial aircraft.
After Hamadi's 1987 arrest in Germany, the United States sought his extradition, but the request was turned down because he might have faced the death penalty in the United States.
Under questioning, Spokesman McCormack sought to play down the notion of a U.S. conflict with the German government over the Hamadi case, saying his release occurred within the confines of normal practice within the German legal system.
He said U.S. officials knew Hamadi's parole was possible and had emphasized repeatedly their view of the importance of him serving a full 25-year term.
Mr. McCormack said the effort to obtain him from Lebanon is complicated by the lack of a U.S.-Lebanese extradition treaty.
The effort might also be hampered by the fact that Hezbollah, to which Hamadi was connected at the time of the hijacking, has become a political force in Lebanon with one of its members holding a cabinet seat in the current government.
Despite its political role, the Shi'ite group remains on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations. Hezbollah is known or suspected to have been behind several major attacks on U.S. interests in Lebanon including the 1983 truck bombing at the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American troops.