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Suspect in Fatal Hijacking Brought to U.S. : Terrorism: Palestinian arrested in Nigeria. American woman's death in 1985 siege of Egypt Air flight prompted FBI's use of 'long arm' laws.

July 17, 1993|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — FBI agents brought an alleged terrorist into court in the United States Friday after his seizure abroad for a 1985 hijacking in which an American woman was killed.

It was the second time in six years that authorities have used laws empowering them to go anyplace in the world to capture suspects accused of terrorist acts against U.S. citizens.

Officials identified the suspect as Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, a Palestinian from Lebanon. He was taken into custody in Nigeria by U.S. agents on charges of air piracy that resulted in death.

According to a federal indictment unsealed Friday, Rezaq murdered the American, Scarlett Rogenkamp, and an Israeli passenger by shooting them at point-blank range and dumping their bodies onto the Tarmac after the jetliner landed at Malta for refueling. Three other people were shot at close range and thrown off the plane but survived.

Rezaq and two accomplices--all armed with firearms and hand grenades--hijacked an Egypt Air flight from Athens to Cairo in November, 1985. But an Egyptian sky marshal damaged the plane as it was departing, forcing it to land at Malta for refueling.

There, after Rezaq dumped five bodies from the aircraft, Egyptian commandos thwarted the hijacking by storming the plane in a hail of gunfire. Fifty-eight foreign passengers died in the shootout. Rezaq, wounded by gunfire, was captured. The other hijackers were killed.

Rezaq was convicted by a Maltese court for crimes committed after the plane arrived in that country and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But he was released by Malta under pressure from Libya last February after serving only seven years. He then went to Ghana, according to U.S. authorities.

The air piracy charges in the United States are different from those he was convicted on in Malta, so Rezaq could not succeed with a defense of "double jeopardy," legal experts said. The U.S. indictment carries a maximum punishment of death or life imprisonment.

In a similar arrest in 1987, the FBI took a Lebanese terrorist off a boat in the Mediterranean for the 1985 hijacking of a Jordanian plane on which four Americans were passengers. The hijacker, Fawaz Younis, began serving a 30-year prison sentence after his 1989 conviction.

In both cases, the FBI used anti-terrorist laws passed by Congress in 1984 and 1986 after a spate of Mideast hijackings in which Americans were killed. These so-called "long arm" statutes gave U.S. authorities the power to seize and prosecute persons anywhere in the world who are suspected of having committed acts of terrorism against Americans.

Federal sources said Rezaq was held in custody in Ghana until that country recently agreed to a U.S. request to put him on a flight to Nigeria. FBI agents arrested Rezaq without incident Thursday upon his arrival at the airport in Lagos.

Authorities in both countries apparently cooperated with the U.S. effort, but Justice Department officials refused to discuss the arrangements.

Rezaq, wearing an orange jumpsuit, was brought into the federal courthouse under heavy security Friday for a hearing in a courtroom equipped with bulletproof glass. His attorney, Sandra Sonnenberg, refused to allow him to enter a plea, saying she was not prepared to accept U.S. court jurisdiction and wanted more details on how he was arrested.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Valder said eight witnesses could testify about Rezaq's murders and his wounding of three other passengers. His fingerprints also were found in the plane's cockpit, Valder said.

Rezaq was ordered held without bond pending another hearing in two weeks on whether he should remain in jail.

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