TWO EAST GERMANS hijacked a Polish airliner to West Berlin last August. West Germany, otherwise a tiger on hijacking, should have thrown the book at them. But it is politically unpopular in West Germany to crack down on people fleeing the Communist regime in East Germany and so the West Germans passed the buck to Washington. This was done by appealing to the United States' interest in maintaining its postwar rights, still legally intact despite the end of the Western occupation in the 1950s, to supervise the air corridors to West Berlin. The United States, also otherwise a tiger on hijacking, could see the West Germans trying to squirm off the political hook, but ever the good ally, it accepted the challenge of taking a firm stand against hijacking and of demonstrating American standards of justice at one and the same time. It agreed to run the trial, its first in Berlin in nearly 25 years.
The trial is now over and, by almost all accounts, it was a disaster. The attempt to graft American judicial procedures on German law produced a hybrid result that left the American judge and the American prosecutor snarling at each other and the State Department entering their dispute publicly on the prosecutor's side. The German jury dismissed the charges brought against one defendant. It acquitted the other of hijacking and endangering life, and convicted him of taking a flight attendant hostage. The judge, Herbert J. Stern of the U.S. District Court in Newark, then sentenced the hijacker to a term equalling the time he had already spent his custody. In brief, the skyjacker went free.
The State Department was quick to announce that the United States' firm and principled opposition to air piracy had not been altered by one jot. But this is absurb. Allied partnership has seldom had an unhappier outcome. As a result of the West German and American political decisions that put the case in Judge Stern's courtroom, something suspiciously like an "East European Hijackers Welcome" sign has been hung out in West Berlin and the antihijacking efforts these countries make elsewhere have been undercut. What do Bonn and Washington plan to do to take that sign down?