Slain American's Family Says Palestinian Terrorist Cheated Justice

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

( - The family of an American murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 has voiced regret that the man responsible for his death has died in U.S. custody before standing trial for his crime.

Mohammed Abbas (Abu Abbas), the head of a PLO faction notorious for its hijacking of an Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, reportedly died of natural causes, in U.S. custody in Iraq.

During the two-day hostage drama in the Mediterranean, terrorists shot Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Jew, and threw his body overboard.

Despite U.S. military intervention aimed at preventing Abbas and four other terrorists from slipping away via an Egyptian "safe passage" offer, the Italian government allowed the terrorist leader to go free, thus setting off an 18-year campaign by Klinghoffer's family to have him brought to justice.

"Our family was shocked to learn of the death of Abu Abbas," daughters Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer said in a statement.

"We have been relentless in our efforts to ensure that Abbas be captured and brought to the U.S. to stand trial for our father's murder and, hopefully, to be convicted and to receive the maximum sentence under our law.

"Our hopes were raised last year when he was captured in Iraq by U.S. troops and arrested. Now, with his death, justice will be denied. The one consolation for us is that Abu Abbas died in captivity, not as a free man."

Abbas was head of a faction called the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), a group loyal to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and sponsored by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

He was not onboard the Italian ship when four PLF members seized it off the Egyptian coast in Oct. 1985, but joined them when the ship docked subsequently at Egypt's Port Said.

During the crisis, the terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head, dumped his body, and then boasted about the killing over the ship's radio, threatening to kill more hostages. They demanded the release of some 50 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Researchers charge that Arafat himself was involved in the Achille Lauro affair, as he was in many other terror attacks carried out by allegedly independent Palestinian factions.

In their definitive book "Inside the PLO," authors Neil Livingstone and David Halevy recounted that, according to Israeli intelligence reports and information made public by the Italian government, the hijackers were in contact via its radio phone with a PLF coordinator in Italy, who in turn "got in touch with PLO headquarters in Tunis for final instructions."

Abbas' escape after the incident was highly controversial. Refused permission to dock in Syria, the hijackers sailed the ship to Port Said, where they and Abbas "surrendered" to the authorities.

Cairo put the terrorists on an Egypt Air flight to Tunis - where the PLO was based - but it was intercepted en route by U.S. Navy jets and forced to land at an airbase in Sicily, Italy. After a dispute over jurisdiction, the Italian government took charge of the Palestinians.

But instead of putting Abbas on trial, the government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi put him on a flight to Yugoslavia, where he was reportedly accommodated at the PLO's "embassy" in Belgrade. He later received safe haven in Iraq, where he is believed to have lived for most of the next 17 years.

Italy did charge, convict and imprison the other terrorists in the group. Later, an Italian court convicted Abbas in absentia, handing down a life sentence he would never serve.

According to Livingstone and Halevy, Arafat was close to Abbas; the PLO chairman personally sponsored his membership to the PLO's executive committee at a meeting in Jordan a year before the Achille Lauro affair.

'They can't hide'

When it was reported last April that Abbas had been captured by U.S. forces in Iraq, Arafat's Palestinian Authority demanded that the U.S. free him immediately.

It cited a U.S.-sponsored, Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1995 which said PLO members could not be tried for acts committed prior to the September 1993 signing of the Oslo interim peace accords.

But the State Department rejected the claim, with a spokesman saying that "the United States is not a party to that or any amnesty arrangements regarding Abu Abbas."

In their statement Tuesday, the Klinghoffer family said that while their interest in seeing Abbas brought to justice was a personal one, his trial and conviction would also have sent a clear message to terrorists everywhere that those who kill Americans "can run but they can't hide."

According to the Zionist Organization of America, at least 51 Americans have died in Palestinian shootings, suicide bombings and other attacks in the Middle East since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993

Suspects who have been widely identified in some of those killings include confidants of Arafat, officials in his PA, and members of his security units, including his personal security contingent.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow