WASHINGTON — A federal judge sentenced a Palestinian militant Monday to life in prison for hijacking a Cairo-bound Egypt Air flight nearly 11 years ago and setting in motion what became one of the bloodiest hijackings in history.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said his only regret was that he couldn't sentence Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, 38, to life without parole for the "heinous and coldblooded" crime.
Because the hijacking occurred two years before the penalty for air piracy was changed, Rezaq could be eligible for parole in 10 years. But Lamberth, who also ordered Rezaq to pay $264,000 in restitution to survivors, said he will urge that Rezaq never be set free.
Prosecutor Scott Glick, in pushing the maximum sentence, said Rezaq coldly shot to death two women, an American and an Israeli, and was responsible for the deaths of 56 others who were killed in a botched rescue attempt by Egyptian commandos when they stormed the plane on the runway at Malta.
Victims and relatives of those who died were among the spectators packing the courtroom, where a jury heard four weeks of testimony about the hijacking of Flight 648 on Nov. 23, 1985.
Rezaq and two other hijackers seized the plane shortly after it took off from Athens. When the lead hijacker was killed during a gun battle with Egyptian security guards, Rezaq took charge. Three survivors--Israeli Tamar Artzi and Americans Patrick Baker and Jackie Pflug--testified that Rezaq singled them out because of their nationalities, shot them in the back of the head and pushed them down the plane's steps onto the runway. They survived because Rezaq's ammunition was defective and because they played dead.
Monday, Edward Leonard of Canada, whose wife and 18-month-old son died during the rescue attempt, shook with rage as he addressed Rezaq. Calling him "the agent of death and misery" and a coward, Leonard said he will hold on to a sketch he made of the hijacker and looks forward to the day when he can clip Rezaq's obituary from a newspaper.
Prosecutor Joseph Valder talked about the difficulty he still has looking at autopsy pictures of American Scarlett Rogenkamp, who was from Oceanside, Calif. "I never could accept or get past the horrible wrongfulness of a bright, good, kind, gentle person of 38 years, the daughter of a World War II soldier . . . going on a short vacation . . . and winding up with a bullet in her brain . . . simply because she was an American citizen."
Rezaq recounted growing up in the war-ravaged Middle East, losing his home and living in refugee camps, where he said he was taught to hate by Palestinian teachers in schools run by the United Nations. He eventually joined the Abu Nidal, a radical group that split from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and was selected to be a hijacker.
Rezaq said he prays for peace in the Middle East--"If [there is] no peace, this will happen over and over and over"--and he asked the victims for forgiveness.
But Pflug said: "I think people need to be responsible for what they do. I think it's important to make sure that this doesn't happen again."