Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Lebanese killer of a U.S. Navy diver was in custody in Beirut yesterday, according to U.S. officials who decried his release from a German prison last week and pledged to bring him to the United States for trial.

Relatives of the victim — Waldorf, Md., native Robert Dean Stethem — said yesterday they were “devastated” to learn of the killer’s release and urged the Bush administration to demand an explanation from Germany.

“Just to see him free slays us,” said Richard Stethem, father of the seaman whose beaten body was thrown onto a Beirut runway in 1985.

Mohammad Ali Hamadi, a member of the Hezbollah guerrilla group, received a life sentence in Germany for hijacking a TWA plane to Beirut and fatally shooting Petty Officer 2nd Class Stethem, but was paroled after 18 years and freed on Thursday.

The United States, which has been seeking Hamadi’s extradition since his 1987 capture in Frankfurt, privately expressed anger at his early release, but officials said they were determined to “get our hands on him.”

“We are going to make every effort to see that he stands trial here in the United States,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “We are disappointed now that he has been released before the end of his full sentence.”

A life sentence in Germany ranges between 20 and 25 years, with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Hamadi, now 41, was convicted in 1989, and the two years served prior to that were deemed part of his sentence.

For the Stethem family, the news reopened old wounds.

Kenneth Stethem, the petty officer’s older brother, called the release “absolute injustice,” and called on the Bush administration to “bring to bear all of its resources to demand an explanation from the German government as to why he was released.”

U.S. and German officials said Berlin notified Washington a couple of days before Hamadi was released. The United States, whose extradition request was turned down in 1987, did not ask that he be held longer because it saw no chance that Germany would turn him over now.

Instead, Washington approached the authorities in Beirut, where Petty Officer Stethem’s murder occurred and where Hamadi arrived on Friday.

A senior State Department official said Hamadi was in “temporary custody” in Lebanon, although it was not clear where or when he was arrested.

Mr. McCormack said Washington was “talking to the Lebanese government” about bringing him to the United States, but that the issue was complicated by the lack of an extradition treaty with Lebanon.

Germany refused to extradite Hamadi to the United States because he could face the death penalty. It also argues that he has been punished for his crime, and that trying him in a U.S. court would constitute double jeopardy.

Mr. McCormack disagreed, saying “there is a difference in the interpretations between the legal systems” of the two countries.

The decision to free Hamadi came just before the reported release of a German hostage in Iraq, Susanne Osthoff, but Berlin rejected suggestions that the developments were related.

The Stethem family, however, was skeptical.

“We feel pretty strongly [the hostage-taking] made his release happen much faster,” Richard Stethem said. “I think the new [German] government … thought it was an easy out to give him back to Lebanon.”

A U.S. official agreed privately that Hamadi “could have been held longer” and said Berlin’s explanation was “not good enough.”

“There was no reason for him to be tried in Germany in the first place,” said Patrick Stethem, Petty Officer Stethem’s other brother. “He should still be tried here for the crimes he committed against a U.S. service member.”

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