Hijacker's release spurs U.S. anger

Germany frees Hezbollah member who killed Md. sailor on TWA flight in '85

December 21, 2005|By TONY PERRY AND CHRISTIAN RETZLAFF

BERLIN -- Germany has freed from prison a Lebanese member of Hezbollah who was serving a life sentence for killing a U.S. Navy diver from Maryland during the hijacking of a TWA jet in 1985.

The release of Mohammed Ali Hamadi infuriated the family of Robert Dean Stethem, who was beaten, shot in the head and dumped on the tarmac of Beirut's airport after he refused the hijackers' demands to denounce his country.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, sent a letter yesterday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking her to express her objections about Hamadi's release.

"I am outraged that a cold-blooded murderer has been released from German custody," said Mikulski, who pointed out that Stethem was killed because he was a member of the U.S. military.

"The families of our servicemen always hear that `a grateful nation never forgets.' These need to be more than just words," she said. "The United States government must act to show its strong opposition to Germany's release of this convicted terrorist."

Mikulski also plans to write to the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington would request that Hamadi be extradited for trial, but noted that the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon.

"Regardless of the timeline, we will make every effort to see that this individual stands trial in U.S. court for what he has done," McCormack said.

A spokesman for German's Foreign Ministry told reporters that Hamadi's release was granted by the German parole board and was not connected to the recent release by Iraqi insurgents of German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, who was held captive for three weeks.

"There's no connection between the two cases," said Martin Jaeger.

Justice Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer told German news media that Hamadi had served nearly 19 years before being released, which she said was a not uncommon amount of time in the case of a life sentence.

"This is something normal that happens every day," Schmierer said.

Hamadi was convicted in West Germany in 1987 of Stethem's murder and received the maximum sentence. The West German government refused an extradition request because Hamadi could have faced the death penalty if tried in the United States.

Hamadi was flown home to Lebanon last week. McCormack said U.S. officials knew of plans to release Hamadi before he was sent to Lebanon. Rice did not personally intervene, he said.

Hamadi was arrested at Frankfurt Airport in 1987 after explosives were found in his luggage. He confessed to taking part in the 17-day hijacking, which was meant to force Israel to release 300 Shiite Muslim prisoners, but he denied killing Stethem.

The TWA flight was commandeered en route from Athens, Greece, to Rome, and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Lebanon several times. Israel ultimately released 31 prisoners, and the hijackers freed the plane's nine crew members and 144 passengers. Stethem was the only one aboard killed.

News of Hamadi's release broke on the Web site debbieschlussel.com, which monitors events involving international terrorism.

Stethem's mother, Patricia Stethem - a former Waldorf resident who has moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C. - called on the Bush administration to pressure Lebanon into extraditing Hamadi to the United States.

"President Bush has said, `If you're not with us, you're against us,' and, `If you harbor terrorists, then you're a terrorist nation,'" she said. "It's just too bad they don't back that up with action. I think our government officials have failed us."

Stethem's brother, Kenneth, a retired Navy SEAL, said his brother's actions stand in contrast to those of U.S. officials.

"That 23-year-old kid showed more courage when they held a gun to his head than all these officials," he said.

Stethem, a member of the Navy construction battalion known as the Seabees, was on the TWA flight after completing an assignment for the Navy.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and in 1995, a new guided-missile destroyer was named for him.

Three other suspects in the TWA hijacking are still at large. Each has a $5 million U.S. government bounty on his head.

Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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