- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

U.S. military officials need no court approval to spirit PLO terrorist leader Abu Abbas directly to jail in either Italy or the United States for the 1985 killing of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, a leading human rights lawyer said yesterday.

"I actually don't think it needs extradition. He's like a prisoner of war, as I understand it," said Jerome J. Shestack of Philadelphia, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights under President Carter and longtime chairman of the International League for Human Rights.

A Palestinian Cabinet official said yesterday that despite Abu Abbas' conviction and life sentence in absentia by an Italian court for the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, he is immune to arrest under the Oslo Accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

State Department officials brushed off that assertion, saying the accord does not bind other nations. The U.S. statute of limitations does not apply to fugitives such as Abu Abbas, 54, who had a $250,000 price on his head when he was captured Monday in Iraq by U.S. troops.

Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said yesterday his nation seeks Abu Abbas' extradition.

Former U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova said Abu Abbas will probably wind up in an Italian prison for life, but not before military interrogation.

"It's a war zone. They can do anything they want with him," he said, dismissing arguments that Abu Abbas is immune.

"That conviction in Italy preceded the Oslo Accords by a number of years. I don't believe Italy is a signatory to the Oslo Accord," said Mr. DiGenova, who was U.S. attorney for the District when federal charges were lodged against Abu Abbas for piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy in the ship hijacking.

A 1995 interim pact in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process said PLO members may not be detained or tried for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo Accord, Palestinian negotiator and Cabinet member Saeb Erekat said in demanding Abu Abbas be freed.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that agreement governs detention and prosecution by Israel and the PLO but "does not apply to the legal status of persons detained in a third country."

Yesterday the military asserted control and the Justice Department declined comment.

Abu Abbas "was a terrorist and remains a terrorist and will be viewed as such," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters in Qatar, after Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the arrest was "clearly a piece" of the effort to root out terrorist elements in Iraq.

In his Oct. 7 Ohio speech explaining why invasion was justified, President Bush cited Abu Abbas' "safe haven" in Iraq as proof of Saddam Hussein's link to terrorists.

Army Special Forces captured Abu Abbas after the fugitive reportedly was twice turned back by Syrian border guards and once at Iran's border.

As of yesterday, the FBI still listed the "PLO-Abu Abbas faction" as a terrorist group.

A U.S. arrest warrant for Abu Abbas, based on sealed charges, was secretly withdrawn Nov. 9, 1987, the Reagan administration acknowledged in early 1988 after Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti mentioned it.

Mr. DiGenova said yesterday that warrant was based on a complaint, not an indictment. He said the complaint was dismissed by a judge because of a lack of evidence after an Italian court convicted Abu Abbas in absentia in 1986 and sentenced him to life.

"Perhaps other evidence has been obtained over the years. Clearly, he was in control of the people who did seize that ship, even if he put a halt to it when he found out killing was going on," Mr. DiGenova said yesterday.

The Achille Lauro case has frustrated U.S. officials since 1985 when fighter jets forced down the Egyptair plane carrying the ringleader also known as Mohammed Abbas — who was not aboard the ship [-] and the four hijackers. The four killed Mr. Klinghoffer, 69, and rolled his body overboard still in his wheelchair.

The Tunisia-bound airliner was forced to land in Sicily, where American officials deferred to Italian prosecutors. Despite U.S. protests, the Italians later said they had no evidence against Abu Abbas and released him.

Under U.S. diplomatic pressure, Abu Abbas later was convicted in absentia, sentenced to life in prison and ordered to pay $20,000 each to Mr. Klinghoffer's two daughters.

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