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Life in prison for Hammadi

By PATRICK MOSER

FRANKFURT, West Germany -- Lebanese militiaman Mohammed Ali Hammadi was convicted Wednesday and sentenced to life in prison for hijacking a TWA jetliner in 1985 and participating in the killing of a U.S. sailor aboard the plane.

The parents of slain Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem -- Patricia and Richard Stethem, of Port Tobacco, Md. -- sat silently facing Hammadi in court as presiding Judge Heiner Mueckenberger delivered the verdict and sentence in one of the rare trials of an international hijacker.

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As Mueckenberger recalled the defendant's troubled life in Beirut, the 5-foot-2 defendant, his beard neatly trimmed, sat with his eyes downcast behind two walls of bullet-proof glass in the courtroom at Frankfurt's Preungesheim maximum-security prison, built at a cost of $6.6 million.

The trial of Hammadi, convicted of murdering Stethem during the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, has generated worldwide interest since the publication of a book and airing of a U.S. television movie about the 17-day hijacking, the longest on record.

The United States had sought the extradition of Hammadi for carrying out the murder and the hijacking, apparently on behalf of the extremist Shiite Moslem movement Hezbollah. The Shiite Amal militia, to which Hammadi also was linked, played a key role in negotiating an end to the hijacking.

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'The accused is found guilty of collective murder in connection with air piracy, hostage-taking and causing serious bodily harm as well as the illegal import of explosives in one case while using forged documents,' the judge ruled. 'He is sentenced to life-long imprisonment as a total sentence.'

Following the verdict, the diver's father said: 'We praise the court's efforts and hope this conviction will stand as an example and encouragement to other countries to decisively deal with terrorists.

'Our family maintains Mohammed Ali Hammadi deserves punishment more severe than allowable under German law,' he said, adding any commutation of Hammadi's sentence would be 'pure mockery of justice.'

Hezbollah is a Shiite movement loyal to Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and has a record of terrorism, including the 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

On the eve of the verdict, three West German relief workers were kidnapped in Sidon, Lebanon, by masked gunmen. One was quickly released, but the fate of the two remaining captives was unknown Wednesday, prompting fears of retaliation for Hammadi's conviction.

The judge said the 'hijackers had used the utmost brutality' on the TWA passengers, and he praised Stethem as 'a model U.S. soldier - tall, strong, good looking and soldier-like in his deportment.'

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'He was less ready than other passengers to yield to the hijackers.'

Hammadi quietly listened as the judge told him, through a translator, that he had a right to appeal. He left the courtroom with his hands in his pockets, eyes downcast.

A court spokesman said it was too early to say if Hammadi would spend the rest of his life in prison. Legal sources said they expect an appeal.

American observers closely watched the 63 days of proceedings, which began in July 1988 after West Germany rejected a U.S. request to extradite Hammadi for fear of reprisals against West German businessmen held in Beirut at the time.

Last week, prosecutors requested a life sentence against Hammadi, who has confessed that he and an accomplice hijacked the airliner en route from Athens, Greece, to Rome June 14, 1985. The hijackers were demanding freedom for 700 Shiite Moslem prisoners held by Israel.

But Hammadi denied that he killed Stethem, who was shot and thrown off the airliner at Beirut airport during the 17-day ordeal.

Hammadi's lawyers argued that much of the evidence about the killing was contradictory and none of the more than 40 witnesses had actually seen whether Stethem was shot by Hammadi or his accomplice, who remains at large.

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The lawyers also asked for leniency, claiming Hammadi was under age at the time.

Hammadi, tried in a juvenile court, initially said he had turned 21 on the eve of the hijacking but later withdrew the statement and said he was still a juvenile when he commandeered the plane with 153 people on board.

One of the Americans aboard, Peter Hill, testified that Hammadi, holding a 9mm Beretta pistol, told him in English, 'This is the gun that killed the Marine.'

Hammadi was arrested in January 1987 at Frankfurt airport when he tried to smuggle liquid explosives into West Germany from Beirut.

Frustrated in combatting terrorism, Western nations have been cooperating to bring accused terrorists to trial.

On March 14, a U.S. federal jury found Lebanese militiaman Fawaz Yunis guilty of leading the 1985 hijacking of a Royal Jordanian airliner with two Americans aboard, delivering the Justice Department a victory in its first 'long-arm' prosecution of terrorism abroad.

Yunis, 30, who was arrested in 1987 in an FBI 'sting' operation on the Mediterranean Sea, was convicted of hostage-taking, conspiracy and air piracy and faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. He has yet to be sentenced.

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