By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
BERLIN, Dec. 20 -- The German government disclosed Tuesday that it had freed a Hezbollah member who had been convicted of hijacking a TWA airliner in 1985, allowing him to return to his native Lebanon despite long-standing requests from the United States to hand him over for trial.
Mohammed Ali Hammadi, 41, walked out of a German prison on Thursday after a parole board concluded that he was eligible for early release, German officials said. His parole prompted a protest from the State Department.
Hammadi served nearly 19 years of a life sentence for air piracy, possession of explosives and the murder of Robert Dean Stethem, a U.S. sailor from Waldorf, Md. Stethem, a passenger on board TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome, was singled out for brutal treatment by the hijackers because of his military service.
Organized by the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, the hijacking was one of the most publicized terrorist attacks on a U.S. target in the 1980s. It lasted for 17 days as the plane, with dozens of hostages aboard, shuttled between airports in the Mediterranean.
The German government said Hammadi's parole had nothing to do with the case of a German hostage in Iraq who was let go by her captors on Sunday. A brother of Hammadi was convicted in the 1980s of kidnapping Westerners in the Middle East in an attempt to pressure German authorities to release him.
The family of the American petty officer, who was beaten and fatally shot by the hijackers, expressed disappointment Tuesday that one of his killers was free. "To have commuted his sentence -- it just doesn't make sense," his mother, Patricia Stethem, said in a telephone interview. "They're dealing with terrorists. They've released him back to Lebanon. . . . He's back where he can join up with the Hezbollah organization again."
The State Department said Tuesday that the U.S government still wanted to put Hammadi on trial, based on a 1985 indictment. Three other Lebanese men named in the indictment remain at large and are on the FBI's most wanted list of terrorist suspects, with $5 million rewards for their capture.
Current and former American officials said they had pushed for two decades to gain custody of Hammadi and try him in a U.S. courtroom, but they ran into political and legal resistance from Germany. U.S. prosecutors originally sought Hammadi's extradition after he was arrested at the Frankfurt airport in 1987, but Germany denied the request and put him on trial locally instead.
"We were certainly disappointed at the time that we didn't get our hands on him then, and we are disappointed now that he has been released before the end of his full sentence," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington. "We have demonstrated over the years that when we believe an individual is responsible for the murder of innocent American civilians, that we will track them down and that we will bring them to justice in the United States."
A spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry said there were no pending requests for Hammadi's extradition at the time of his release. McCormack turned aside questions about that, saying he was not a lawyer. He said the State Department was notified of Hammadi's release before he reached Lebanon, but the spokesman did not specify when.
Legal experts said it was doubtful that Germany could have transferred him to U.S. custody. Under German law, defendants cannot be retried for crimes for which they have already been convicted, even if they are prosecuted in another country.
Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. McCormack was asked if the United States would seek to obtain custody of Hammadi through a process known as rendition, in which the CIA apprehends suspects and flies them out of the country without judicial procedures. He replied that he could not answer the question "from this podium."
Court officials in Frankfurt said Hammadi was freed after a regularly scheduled review of his case by parole officials. They would not say why they waited until after he had returned to Lebanon to make the decision public.
The German hostage freed in Iraq on Sunday was Susanne Osthoff, an Arabic-speaking archaeologist who had lived there for years. "There is no connection between these two cases," said Martin Jaeger, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry. The identity of Osthoff's kidnappers remains unclear, and German officials have not divulged any details about her time in captivity.
Hammadi is a member of an influential Lebanese family that is active in Hezbollah, which was blamed for a wave of kidnappings in the 1980s, including those of several Germans.
Hammadi's brother, Abbas, was arrested in Germany in 1987 and charged with helping to kidnap two German businessmen in a bid to use them as bargaining chips for Mohammed Hammadi's freedom. Abbas Hammadi was released in 1993 after serving half of his sentence.
At the time, German news media reported that he was let go as part of a deal between the German government and Hezbollah to release two other Germans held hostage in Lebanon. German officials denied that assertion.
Mohammed Hammadi was charged with being one of two hijackers who seized the TWA plane in Athens. He escaped after the hijacking but was arrested at the Frankfurt airport on Jan. 13, 1987, after security agents discovered liquid explosives in his luggage.
In his trial, witnesses testified that after the hijackers discovered that Stethem was a U.S. sailor, Hammadi and an accomplice beat him until he collapsed. Hammadi was seen carrying the handgun that was used to fatally shoot the 23-year-old American. Prosecutors said they never established who pulled the trigger.
A panel of German judges sentenced Hammadi to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 15 years.
Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration who oversaw efforts to extradite Hammadi in 1987, said German authorities threw obstacles in the way of U.S. prosecutors at that time and only reluctantly cooperated.
"They were not open at all," she recalled. "We knew he would be released early, way back then."
Staff writers John Burgess and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.