WASHINGTON — The leader of a group of Palestinian terrorists who took over a Pan Am Boeing 747 in Pakistan in 1986 and killed 22 people won’t face the death penalty under a plea bargain disclosed Wednesday.
The deal involving Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini was announced during a hearing Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan. Details are to remain secret until a hearing on Dec. 16 that victims and their relatives will be invited to attend, Sullivan said.
Safarini, wearing an orange prison jump suit, sat with an interpreter in the courtroom and said "Yes" when asked by Sullivan if he was satisfied with his lawyer.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to comment on the plea bargain, citing the court order. However, as part of the deal, prosecutors are expected to drop their appeal of an earlier Sullivan ruling that the death penalty cannot be applied in this case.
Safarini’s case was the first in which federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty for a hijacker.
Sullivan ruled April 10 that at the time Safarini and three other members of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization took over the Pan Am jet there was no federal law calling for the death penalty in air piracy cases.
Court papers say Safarini led the group who boarded the plane while it was parked at Karachi Airport in Pakistan on Sept. 5, 1986. The men said they wanted to be flown out of Pakistan and demanded that prisoners in Cyprus and Israel be released.
After a 15-hour standoff, the hijackers gathered the passengers and crew in one area of the plane and began shooting and throwing hand grenades. In all, 22 people were killed, including two Americans, and more than 100 wounded before the men were apprehended.
The four hijackers, and a fifth mastermind, were convicted in Pakistan and given death sentences that were commuted to life imprisonment.
Four of the terrorists remain behind bars, but Safarini was released Sept. 27, 2001, after his sentence was reduced by a series of amnesties. U.S. law enforcement agents caught him the next day as he traveled to Jordan to join relatives.
The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but it took Congress 12 years to write a new death penalty law, making some drug-related crimes capital offenses. Dozens of other crimes, including air piracy, were added in 1994.
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