BEIRUT,(Reuters) – Germany has secretly released a Hizbollah member jailed for life for killing a U.S. Navy diver and returned him to Lebanon despite an extradition request from the United States, Lebanese political sources said on Tuesday.
They said Mohammad Ali Hammadi, convicted of killing Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight diverted to Beirut and sentenced to life without parole, was flown back to the Lebanese capital last week.
Diplomatic sources in Germany confirmed Hammadi”s release but the German Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Hammadi, now in his late 30s, was captured in 1987 and all attempts to have him exchanged with German hostages held in Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s failed.
Hammadi”s brother, Abdul-Hadi, was a senior security official of Hizbollah at the time.
News of his release could anger Washington as it had indicted him for Stethem”s murder and had asked Berlin to extradite him to the United States if ever he was to be freed.
Hammadi”s release occurred a few days before German hostage Susanne Osthoff was freed in Iraq. The archaeologist had disappeared on Nov. 25. Germany said on Sunday she was in safe custody. She has made not public statement since.
A Lebanese source said a senior German intelligence officer visited Damascus early this month but did not disclose the purpose of the trip. Syria is a key backer of Hizbollah.
The U.S. embassy in Berlin had no immediate comment on Hammadi”s release. But several diplomatic sources there said Washington would not be pleased with Germany”s action and that it could complicate relations between the two countries.
A German government official told Reuters that any suggestion of a connection between Osthoff”s and Hammadi”s release was "completely absurd".
A German court convicted Hammadi in 1989 of murder, air piracy and other crimes for his role in the June 1985 hijacking of the TWA passenger jet that was diverted to Beirut and Algiers and sentenced him to life in prison.
His sentence is one Germany reserves for the most serious and cruel crimes. It is difficult but not impossible to release someone who receives such a sentence after 15 years.
Stethem, a native of Waldorf, Maryland, was based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at the time of the hijacking.
Hammadi”s other brother, Abbas Ali, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for plotting the kidnapping of two Germans in Lebanon in the hope of forcing the release of his brother. He was released from jail after serving his term.