- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003


The leader of a group of Palestinian terrorists who took over a Pan Am jet in Pakistan in 1986 and killed 22 persons won’t face the death penalty under a plea bargain disclosed yesterday.

The deal involving Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini was announced during a hearing in Washington before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan. Details are to remain secret until a Dec. 16 hearing that victims and their relatives will be invited to attend, Judge Sullivan said.

Safarini, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, sat with an interpreter in the courtroom and said, “Yes,” when asked by the judge if he was satisfied with his attorney.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the plea bargain, citing the court order. However, as part of the deal, prosecutors are expected to drop their appeal of an earlier ruling by Judge Sullivan that the death penalty cannot be applied in this case.

Safarini’s case was the first in which federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty for a hijacker.

Judge Sullivan ruled April 10 that at the time Safarini and three other members of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization took over a Pan Am Boeing 747 there was no federal law calling for the death penalty in air piracy cases.

Court papers say Safarini led the group who boarded the plane while it was parked at Karachi Airport in Pakistan on Sept. 5, 1986. The men said they wanted to be flown out of Pakistan and demanded that prisoners in Cyprus and Israel be released.

After a 15-hour standoff, the hijackers gathered the passengers and crew into one area of the plane and began shooting and throwing hand grenades. Before the men were apprehended, 22 persons including two Americans were killed and more than 100 were wounded.

The four hijackers, and a fifth mastermind, were convicted in Pakistan and given death sentences that were commuted to life imprisonment.

Four of the terrorists remain behind bars, but Safarini was released Sept. 27, 2001, after his sentence was reduced by a series of amnesties. U.S. law enforcement agents caught him the next day as he traveled to Jordan to join relatives.

With Safarini behind bars, defense attorneys in October 2002 offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, court filings show. Prosecutors rejected the offer at the time.

In court filings, defense attorney Robert Tucker said the death penalty could not be applied in this case.

The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but it took Congress 12 years to write a death penalty law, making some drug-related crimes capital offenses. Dozens of other crimes, including air piracy, were added in 1994.

Mr. Tucker argued that the 1994 law could not be applied retroactively to a 1986 hijacking. Judge Sullivan agreed, but prosecutors asked him to reconsider, saying a 1974 air piracy law should apply.

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