Achille Lauro Hijacking Trial Opens in Italy; 5 Defendants in Court, 9 Still at Large

Associated Press

The Italian government on Wednesday began the trial of those accused in the Achille Lauro hijacking, two days of terror at sea in which an invalid American was killed, but the alleged mastermind was among those defendants still at large.

Only five of the 15 defendants were in court, handcuffed and sitting in metal-barred cages. The fugitives being tried in absentia include Abul Abbas, the Palestinian guerrilla leader accused of planning the piracy.

The opening proceedings were disrupted Wednesday when four young West Germans, sitting in the public gallery, rose to their feet with arms raised in a clenched-fist salute and the one woman among them started to read a statement in English supporting the Palestinian cause.

Screaming and Kicking

Police quickly overpowered the demonstrators and carried them screaming and kicking up a stairway and out of the courtroom. Police said later that the court president would decide whether the West Germans should be charged with any offense.

The trial is being held in a chamber resembling a wartime bunker beneath the courthouse. A police helicopter circled overhead Wednesday, and 600 officers stood guard. People entering the court were searched with X-rays and metal detectors.

Four Palestinians seized the Italian cruise liner Oct. 7 off Port Said, Egypt, and held more than 300 people hostage before surrendering to Egyptian authorities Oct. 9. Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American, was killed and his body thrown into the sea along with his wheelchair.

Among the charges is "hiding a body," referring to Klinghoffer's corpse.

Earlier Arms Convictions

The accused hijackers in custody were convicted last November on preliminary charges of illegal weapons possession.

No testimony was given Wednesday. The court rejected a defense motion that the trial be ended immediately on grounds that only Egypt has jurisdiction in the case.

Abbas, who leads the Palestine Liberation Front guerrilla faction, was involved in negotiating the surrender. He was aboard an Egyptian jetliner that later carried the four accused Palestinian pirates out of Egypt and was forced down in Sicily by U.S. warplanes.

Italy jailed the four men accused of the actual hijacking but freed Abbas over U.S. protest. Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's government, which nearly fell as a result, said at the time that there was no evidence on which to hold Abbas. Italian authorities indicted him later.

Tried as Juvenile

Three of the four men charged with hijacking the ship are among the defendants in this trial. The fourth, Bassam Ashker, will be tried separately by a juvenile court because he was 17 when the Achille Lauro was seized.

The accused hijackers in court Wednesday were Youssef Molki, 23, who has said he led the hijackers and is accused of shooting Klinghoffer; Ibrahim Abdellatif, 20, and Ahmed Assadi, 24.

Issa Abbas, a 24-year-old cousin of Abul Abbas, was also in court. He is accused of smuggling automatic weapons and hand grenades in a car ferried from Tunisia to Genoa.

The fifth man in court was Mowfak Gandura, a 37-year-old Syrian who was arrested in a campground outside Rome. He is accused of helping other defendants travel through Italy while they prepared for the hijacking.

Possible Life in Prison

In addition to Ashker and the five defendants in court, nine others are being tried in absentia on charges related to the hijacking, Klinghoffer's murder and the taking of 383 passengers and crew members as hostages. The maximum penalty for the crimes in Italy, which does not have capital punishment, is life in prison.

Under Italian law, accomplices can face the same charges as those accused of the actual crime.

Sixteen men were indicted originally, but Judge Lino Monteverde ordered Wednesday that charges be dropped for lack of evidence against two who were accused of minor roles.

Then the only non-Arab defendant--Petros Flores, a Greek from Athens--was added to the list Wednesday. The prosecution accuses him of giving his passport to one of the hijackers to use in boarding the Achille Lauro when it set out on the cruise from Genoa.

Waiter May Testify

Among the expected witnesses is a Portuguese waiter, one of two crewmen allegedly forced to throw Klinghoffer's body overboard while the hijacked ship stood off Syria unsuccessfully seeking permission to enter port. The corpse later washed ashore in Syria.

Prosecutors allege that Molki shot Klinghoffer in the head and chest after Syria refused a request to help arrange negotiations for the release of 51 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

They say the hijackers planned to kill American and British passengers, one every five minutes, unless the prisoners were freed.

In interviews conducted in an undisclosed location, Abul Abbas has contended that the hijackers' plan was not to kill hostages but to launch a raid in Ashdod, the Israeli port that was the ship's next stop after Port Said.

The trial is expected to last two or three weeks.

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