U.S. officials yesterday said the killer of a U.S. Navy diver had been released from “temporary custody” in Lebanon but refused to rule out bringing him to the United States by force.
The Lebanese government criticized Washington’s request to hand over Mohammad Ali Hamadi, saying the militant already had served a prison sentence for the 1985 murder of Robert Dean Stethem of Waldorf, Md.
Hamadi, a member of the Hezbollah guerrilla group, was taken into custody upon returning to Lebanon after his release from a German prison Thursday. He had served 18 years for hijacking a TWA plane to Beirut and fatally shooting Petty Officer 2nd Class Stethem, who was 23 when he was killed.
“What I can assure anybody who’s listening, including Mr. Hamadi, is that we will track him down, we will find him, and we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he’s done,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
“We will make every effort, working with the Lebanese authorities or whomever else, to see that he faces trial for the murder of Mr. Stethem,” he said.
Attempts to bring Hamadi to the United States are complicated because the United States and Lebanon do not have an extradition treaty.
Mr. McCormack and other U.S. officials would not rule out using force to achieve their goal if diplomacy fails. They cited past cases of foreigners who were forcefully brought to the United States to stand trial.
“We saw that with the person responsible for the murder of an American citizen, Mr. Klinghoffer,” Mr. McCormack said on Tuesday in reference to Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled New Yorker who was shot in his wheelchair on a cruise ship in 1985 and thrown overboard while still alive.
“We tracked that person down and we brought them to justice in the United States,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, but we will track them down and they will face justice in the United States.”
The mastermind of Mr. Klinghoffer’s murder, Mohammed Abbas, was captured in 2003 near Baghdad and died in custody 11 months later of what the Pentagon called “natural causes.”
In a case cited by another U.S. official, Aimal Khan Kasi, a Pakistani citizen who in 1993 shot five persons in their cars as they entered the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., was snatched in an FBI raid in Pakistan four years later and was executed in 2002.
Richard Stethem, the diver’s father, said yesterday that the United States should use force to apprehend Hamadi if necessary.
“We would like to see that strong of a measure to go get him,” he said. “That would be the right thing to do because of what he did to our son.”
Hamadi and three accomplices dumped Petty Officer Stethem’s beaten and lifeless body on the runway from the plane at the Beirut airport. Those three should be brought to the United States, too, said Patrick Stethem, the slain diver’s brother.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials said Hamadi was in “temporary custody” in Lebanon, but yesterday they said he was no longer being held.
Lebanese officials would not confirm Hamadi’s detention but made clear they had no reason to detain him.
“He served his sentence in Germany and there are measures that will be completed in Lebanon. Why are they asking us now?” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said of the Americans.
“Originally, they could have requested that Germany hand him over,” he said.
U.S. and German officials said Tuesday that Berlin had notified Washington a couple of days before Hamadi was released. The United States, whose extradition request was turned down in 1987, asked again at the level of the attorney general, Mr. McCormack said.
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.
Gary Emerling contributed to this report.