The mystery of 'Pretty Woman' Monika Haas trial: The confiscated files of the East German secret police suggest the 47-year-old German supplied weapons in the 1977 hijacking of a Lufthansa flight by Palestinian terrorists. She denies involvement.

Sun Journal

March 09, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN -- Of the thousands of Germans whose lives were turned upside-down by the fall of the Berlin Wall, certainly one of the most jarring changes of fortune was visited upon Monika Haas.

To the German state, Ms. Haas is the mysterious woman who, nearly 20 years ago, packed up her infant daughter and a stolen passport, flew to the Spanish island of Mallorca, tucked pistols and hand grenades into a baby carriage, and pushed her lethal cargo right past security guards at the international airport.

Once inside, prosecutors say, she handed the weapons to Palestinian guerrillas, who used them to hijack a Lufthansa flight.

The hijackers led their airborne hostages on an agonizing five-day journey around Europe, the Middle East and Africa. They killed the pilot and were halted only by German commandos in Mogadishu, Somalia.

For nearly 20 years, German police had wondered who had supplied the Palestinians with their guns.

They found the first hints that it may have been Ms. Haas -- until then, a seemingly unremarkable Frankfurt hospital employee -- in confiscated files of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Ms. Haas herself offers a different story: She denies any any involvement in the hijacking.

On the opening day of her trial, now under way in Frankfurt, she denied ever having set foot on the holiday haven of Mallorca.

"The charges against me are wrong," she says.

The many friends who showed up for her trial describe the 47-year-old not as an ideologically mixed-up gun-runner but as a quietly heroic single mother, a model citizen who drove a taxi to feed her children, finished her schooling at night and would certainly have lived out a harmless, productive life if only the Berlin Wall hadn't collapsed and those apparently incriminating files hadn't come tumbling out.

True, Ms. Haas devoted herself to radical politics in the 1970s, friends say. But so did seemingly half of young West Germany.

True, too, that her name comes up in connection with the hijacking in those police dossiers. But why should anybody take the word of the Stasi, now known to have squirreled away all sorts of fabrications and hearsay?

Whatever the verdict in this trial, the case has absorbed the nation and restored memories of the "German Autumn." It was the season when terrorism reached security-minded Germany in kidnappings and assassinations -- and the Lufthansa hijacking.

Prosecutors place Ms. Haas in the mid-1970s in South Yemen. "It's hard to convey, in just a few words, the atmosphere of those times," she has told a German newspaper. American radicals had the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon to hate; young West Germans, by contrast, had their own parents.

Painfully aware that they were the offspring of the generation that had embraced Adolf Hitler, members of the younger generation felt a unique obligation to stamp out "fascism" wherever they found it. And in those times, they believed they had found it in the industrial society their parents had labored to build.

"For me, in those times, the point was above all: Never again. Stop fascism before it starts," Ms. Haas recalls.

And so to South Yemen. Young Germans were there seeking not sunshine but training from Palestinian guerrillas in the fine arts of bomb-building. And the Spartan life of a desert-based freedom fighter seemed at first to agree with her. She had left her first-born -- Frank, 7 -- with friends in West Germany, learned to shoot, won the nickname "Pretty Woman" from the Palestinians and fell in love with Zaki Helou. He was a guerrilla trainer who would later be accused of teaching West Germans how to build bombs.

By 1976, the Stasi record shows, she had won enough of her comrades' trust to be sent on a risky mission to Kenya. That year, Palestinian guerrillas planned to shoot down an airplane belonging to El Al, Israel's national airline, on its approach to Nairobi, with the help of a pair of West Germans armed with Soviet-made rockets. But Israeli agents apparently got word of the operation; the West German rocketeers were rounded up in Nairobi.

Back in South Yemen, it fell to Ms. Haas to travel to Kenya to learn what had happened. She never found her missing compatriots -- the Israelis found her first. Their intelligence service, the Mossad, seized her in Nairobi. As her son Frank, now 28, puts it, the Israeli agents interrogated her "very undemocratically."

Monika Haas will not say what happened to her; Frank Haas says she hasn't even told him. But she says the experience so terrified her that she realized she wasn't cut out for guerrilla life, and decided to drop out of the underground for good.

After the Israelis released her, she returned to South Yemen, she says, told her lover her decision and asked to be told nothing more about his doings: She didn't want to have tales to tell if ever again detained and, perhaps, tortured.

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