Achille Lauro Hijacking Trial Opens Wednesday
GENOA, Italy (AP) _ Sixteen men go on trial Wednesday in the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the slaying of the crippled American tourist Leon Klingfhoffer.
Only four of the defendants are in Italian custody. The 12 other men, including the alleged mastermind of the Oct. 7 hijacking, Abul Abbas, will be tried in absentia.
Italian prosecutors say they have built a case against the main defendants that will prove charges of murder, hostage taking and committing a crime with terrorist aims. Conviction on all the charges could result in life prison terms.
Defense lawyers said they would argue that the defendants are not terrorists, but fighters for the Palestinian cause, and that the killing of the 69-year-old Klinghoffer was not part of their plan. Klinghoffer, a New Yorker who was crippled because of strokes, was shot to death and his body and wheelchair dumped overboard.
Defense lawyer Gianfranco Pagano said in an interview Tuesday that the defense would present a joint stand and would argue that only the hijacker accused of shooting Klinghoffer should be tried for murder.
Youssef Magid al-Molqi, who has said he led the hijackers, is accused of shooting Klinghoffer. Al-Molqi, 23, and two other alleged hijackers, Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif, 20, and Ahmed Marrouf al-Assadi, 24, are in custody.
Also in custody is Pagano’s client, Mohammed Issa Abbas, 24, who is accused of providing grenades and weapons used by the hijackers.
The other hijacker, Bassam al-Ashker, will be tried separately because he was only 17 at the time of the hijacking.
The hijacking ended Oct. 9 after Egypt negotiated with the hijackers. The were flown out of Egypt on an EgyptAir jet that was intercepted by American fighters and forced to land in Sicily.
Italy arrested the hijackers, but let Abul Abbas go because he had a diplomatic passport and because Italy said at the time it had no legal grounds to hold him.
The prosecution charges that the hijackers and those who helped them obtain passports and arms had planned to kill American and British hostages after taking control of the Achille Lauro during a Mediterranean cruise.
The prosecution contends they were trying to force Israel to release 50 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Prosecutor Luigi Carli said the hijackers had planned all along to kill hostages and Klinghoffer was slain because he was American.
The most widely sought fugitive in the case is Abul Abbas, the guerrilla codename used by Mohammed Abbas. He is leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and is believed to have taken refuge in Tunisia.
Carli said that prosecutors will ask to have charges dropped against one defendant accused of having played a minor role because of lack of strong evidence against him.
But, Carli said, the number of defendants should stay at 16 because the prosecution will name a Greek man, Petros Flores, whose passport allegedly was used by one of the defendants to board the ship when it set sail from Genoa.
″Certainly there will be convictions, certainly these (defendants) are guilty,″ said defense lawyer Pagano.
But, he said, the defense will argue that the accused ″were not terrorists but fighters for the freedom of their country, the freedom of the people.″
The defense will try to make the jury understand what drove the men, who are mostly uneducated and brought up in poverty in refugee camps, Pagano said.
Alfredo Biondi, a lawyer who is representing Klinghoffer’s daughter, Ilsa, in seeking civil damages in the case, said Tuesday he hopes the jurors will ask themselves, ″How a man in a wheelchair fits into ... the Palestinian question.″
Mohammed Issa Abbas and four others in the case were convicted in November by a Genoa court on weapons charges related to the hijacking. Issa Abbas was sentenced to seven years in prison, longest sentence of the four.d