The four hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and an accused accomplice will go on trial Monday on illegal weapons charges to ensure their detention while murder and kidnaping counts are prepared against them, Deputy Prosecutor Francesco Meloni announced Wednesday.
Meloni confirmed indirectly that Abul Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization faction leader whose flight from Italy touched off a diplomatic crisis with the United States and briefly toppled the government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, will be formally accused in the hijacking.
He refused to discuss details of the government's case, but judicial sources said that the prosecutors now have evidence that Abbas masterminded the crime, as the United States charged before Italy let him leave the country.
Investigators were said to have evidence that Abbas sent the hijackers on board the Achille Lauro a coded message through an Arabic-language program broadcast over Radio Monte Carlo.
According to information leaked by court officials to Italian reporters, the four terrorists boarded the ship with two plans, both calling for hijacking the ship and methodically killing passengers.
Under the primary plan, it was said, the men were to have left the vessel at the Israeli port of Ashdod, where they would "kill as many people as possible," then reboard the ship, seize control of it and begin killing a passenger every five minutes until Israeli authorities released 50 Palestinian prisoners.
The fall-back plan called for an earlier hijacking, such as actually occurred on Oct. 7, followed by the methodical murder of passengers.
A Little Misunderstanding
According to reports attributed to judicial sources, the hijackers were panicked into adopting the fallback plan after an Achille Lauro waiter, assuming that because the four were in one cabin they were homosexuals, tried to befriend them, leading them to think their mission had been discovered.
Meloni also indirectly confirmed that evidence has been collected against Abbas since he was permitted by Italy to go free despite a U.S. warrant for his arrest.
Defending the Italian authorities' actions, he said, "At the moment Abbas left Italy and for many days afterward, there were no elements to incriminate him."
Abbas reportedly is named in one of 11 arrest warrants that have been issued in connection with the hijacking.
Meloni and Carli said the trial scheduled for Monday will probably be concluded in a single day. They said it will bring out few details about the hijacking beyond the methods used by the men to smuggle their arms into Italy and onto the Achille Lauro.
The prosecutors said that although they do not have the weapons, which were confiscated in Egypt when the hijackers surrendered, they can prove the illegal arms charges against the men by means of photographs and the testimony of Italian witnesses, whom they did not identify.
Singling out a minor charge for early trial in what may prove to be a complex case is not unusual in Italy. The practice is often used to ensure the detention of prisoners while prosecutors concentrate on investigating more serious charges.
Meloni said the men will be tried on charges of murder and kidnaping in a second trial, for which no date has been fixed. The five could be sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 12 years if they are convicted Monday.
Carli identified the four hijackers as Youssef Magid Molqi, 23, born in Jordan; Ahmed Assadi, 23, born in Damascus, Syria; Ibrahim Abdellatif, 20, born in Beirut, and Bassam Ashker, 19, born in Tripoli, Lebanon. The fifth man, accused of complicity in getting weapons aboard the ship, was identified as Syrian-born Mohammed Khalaf.