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Germany Lets TWA Hijacker Out of Prison

Mohammed Ali Hamadi is back in Lebanon. He spent nearly 19 years behind bars for the murder of a U.S. Seabee during the 1985 ordeal.

December 21, 2005|Tony Perry and Christian Retzlaff | Times Staff Writers

BERLIN — Germany has freed a Lebanese member of Hezbollah who was serving a life sentence for killing a U.S. Navy diver during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet.

The release of Mohammed Ali Hamadi outraged the family of Robert Dean Stethem, who was beaten, shot in the head and dumped on the tarmac of Beirut's airport after he refused the hijackers' demands to denounce his country.

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that Hamadi's release was granted by the German parole board and was not connected to the recent release by Iraqi insurgents of German archeologist Susanne Osthoff, who had been held for three weeks.

"There's no connection between the two cases," Martin Jaeger said.

Justice Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer told German media that Hamadi had been imprisoned for nearly 19 years, which she said was not an uncommon amount of time in the case of a life sentence.

"This is something normal that happens every day," she said.

Hamadi was convicted in West Germany in 1989 of Stethem's murder and received the maximum life sentence. The West German government refused an extradition request from the U.S. because Hamadi could have faced the death penalty if tried in the United States.

Hamadi, 41, was flown home to Lebanon last week. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington would request that he be extradited for trial, but he noted that the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon.

"Regardless of the timeline, we will make every effort to see that this individual stands trial in U.S. court for what he has done," McCormack said.

McCormack said U.S. officials knew of plans to release Hamadi before he was sent to Lebanon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not personally intervene, he said.

Hamadi was arrested at the Frankfurt Airport in 1987 after explosives were found in his luggage. He confessed to taking part in the 16-day hijacking, but he denied killing Stethem.

The hijackers meant to force Israel to release 300 Shiite Muslim prisoners. Hezbollah, a militant organization and Lebanese political party, is considered a terrorist group by Washington.

TWA Flight 847 was commandeered en route from Athens to Rome, and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Lebanon several times. Israel ultimately released 31 prisoners, and the hijackers freed the plane's eight crew members and 144 passengers. Only Stethem was slain.

News of Hamadi's release broke on the website, which monitors events involving international terrorism.

Stethem's mother, Patricia Stethem of Myrtle Beach, S.C., called on the Bush administration to pressure Lebanon into extraditing Hamadi to the U.S.

"President Bush has said if you're not with us, you're against us, and if you harbor terrorists, then you're a terrorist nation," she said. "It's just too bad they don't back that up with action. I think our government officials have failed us."

Stethem's brother, Kenneth, a retired Navy SEAL, said his brother's actions stood in contrast to that of U.S. officials. "That 23-year-old kid showed more courage when they held a gun to his head than all these officials," he said.

Robert Stethem, a member of the Navy construction battalion known as the Seabees, was on the TWA flight after completing an assignment for the Navy.

He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and in 1995 a newly commissioned guided-missile destroyer was named for him.

Three other suspected hijackers remain at large.


Perry reported from San Diego and Retzlaff from Berlin. A Times staff writer in Washington contributed to this report.

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