WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration said Friday that it is involved in sensitive talks with West Germany on whether a Lebanese man, suspected of hijacking a Trans World Airlines jet in which an American was killed, would face the death penalty if sent to the United States to stand trial.
West Germany said the suspect, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, 22, would be turned over to the United States only if Washington guaranteed that he will not be executed.
Patrick Korten, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman, described the discussions as "extremely sensitive," and refused to say whether the United States would assure West Germany that the death penalty would not be applied.
"I am not going to talk about it," he replied when asked about an ABC News report that the Justice Department wanted to avoid making a commitment against imposing the death penalty.
In Bonn, a Justice Ministry spokesman told reporters that West Germany had received a preliminary request for the extradition of Hamadi. He said that the 1978 extradition treaty between the two nations stipulated that West Germany would not hand over suspects if they faced the death penalty.
The murder and air piracy charges against Hamadi, stemming from the June, 1985, hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the killing of American passenger Robert Dean Stethem, carry a maximum penalty under U.S. law of death.
Justice Department officials privately acknowledged that prosecutors could ask for a lesser penalty.
But they said seeking the death penalty would send a strong signal about the U.S. war against international terrorism and might be appropriate because of the serious crimes that occurred during the TWA hijacking.
Navy Diver Slain
Flight 847 was hijacked on a flight from Athens to Rome. During the 16-day ordeal, 39 American men were held and Stethem, 23, a Navy diver, was beaten, shot in the head and thrown from the jet at the Beirut airport.
At the time, President Reagan called the hijackers "thugs, murderers and barbarians."
A grand jury in Washington has indicted Hamadi and three other Lebanese Shia Muslims alleged to have participated in or to have directed the hijacking.
Hamadi was arrested in Frankfurt on Tuesday on his arrival from Beirut aboard a Middle East Airlines flight. Customs officials at the airport found three wine bottles in his carry-on luggage containing methyl nitrate, a fluid similar to nitroglycerin that is sometimes used in making explosives.