BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon criticised on Wednesday U.S. demands that it hand over a Hizbollah hijacker released by Germany after nearly 19 years in jail for murdering an American.
"Originally they (the U.S. government) could have requested that Germany hand him over. Why are they asking us?" Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told reporters.
"He served his sentence in Germany and there are measures that will be completed in Lebanon…Why are they asking us now?"
Siniora also said Lebanon”s judicial authorities were looking at the legal status of Mohammad Ali Hammadi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a German court for his role in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner and the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem in Beirut.
Hammadi was freed quietly last week and immediately returned to Lebanon despite objections from Washington, which has vowed to bring him from Lebanon to face a U.S. judge.
Siniora said Hammadi had already served a term close to what he would have faced if he had been convicted in Lebanon. He also said the judiciary was exploring whether his crime was covered by a general amnesty after Lebanon”s 1975-90 civil war.
A U.S. official said on Tuesday Hammadi was in temporary custody in Lebanon but Lebanese judicial sources said on Wednesday they were not aware he was being held.
Hammadi was arrested in Frankfurt in 1987 and convicted in 1989 of murder, air piracy and possession of explosives.
Germany, which does not have the death penalty, rejected an early U.S. request for his extradition on the grounds that he could have faced capital punishment in America.
Under German law, he became eligible for release after serving 15 years. He had spent more than 18 years behind bars, but Washington complained he did not stay there for what it said was a typical "life" sentence in Germany of 25 years.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday Washington would "make every effort to see that he (Hammadi) stands trial in the United States for what he did".
Bringing Hammadi from Lebanon is complicated because there is no U.S.-Lebanese extradition treaty, McCormack said.
Berlin, whose new government has had an awkward start to ties with the Bush administration over counterterrorism tactics, said there was no link between Hammadi”s release last week and that of a German hostage in Iraq just days later.
At his trial, Hammadi confessed to helping stage the 17-day hijacking to help win the release of 700 Lebanese detainees held by Israel, but he denied any role in killing Stethem.
But according to witnesses, Hammadi and an accomplice took the 23-year-old to the cockpit and beat him. Then they shot him and threw his body out of the Boeing 727 plane.