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A hijacking ends; an ethical dilemma begins

February 11, 2000
Web posted at: 1:57 PM EST (1857 GMT)

( -- The British government could use the services of a good ethicist. Determining the fate of both the perpetrators and hostages involved in the just-resolved hijacking of an Afghan Boeing 727 -- and in some cases establishing a clear distinction between the two -- presents a complex challenge for an administration committed to an "ethical foreign policy." Of the 150 people who left the plane when the hijacking drama ended early Thursday, 22 have been arrested in connection with the crime, while a further 17 are being questioned by police. "Because police said there were only eight hijackers, the number of arrests makes clear that this was more than a straightforward hijacking," says TIME London bureau chief Jef McAllister. "It's believed that a major chunk of the passengers were in cahoots with the hijackers in getting the heck out of Afghanistan."

But even more complicated for Britain is the fact that 75 of the freed passengers have applied for political asylum in Britain, and others appeared to be weighing their options -- the BBC reported Friday that only 32 of the hostages are willing to return home to Afghanistan on a charter plane sent by the Taliban government. The Taliban themselves may have helped decide the fate of the hijackers and their co-conspirators by vowing to execute them. Like most European countries, Britain refrains from extraditing suspects to countries where they may face the death penalty.

But London is determined to avoid creating the impression that the hijackers had in any way been rewarded for an act of terrorism. "They'll be tried under British law, and any asylum applications will be considered only after they've served their sentences," says McAllister. The perpetrators, though, may take some comfort from a 1996 case involving seven Iraqis who hijacked a plane to London. "Their convictions were overturned on appeal on the grounds that the court had not been allowed to hear their 'duress' defense -- that their circumstances had been so desperate that their action was forced on them," says McAllister. "The appeal judge argued that if Anne Frank had been charged with car theft after stealing a car to flee Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, English law would have entitled her to present fear of the Gestapo in her defense."

Deciding the fate of those asylum seekers deemed innocent of any collusion with the hijackers may be the most difficult choice. "The government fears establishing a precedent in which a handful of people can sacrifice their own freedom in a hijacking in order to deliver a larger group to asylum," says McAllister. "So Home Secretary Jack Straw has indicated that each case will be heard individually, but that he's inclined to send them home or to a third country." To win asylum in Britain, each individual will have to prove that he or she has a valid fear of persecution. "Of course you could make the argument that simply having applied for asylum in Britain will bring plenty of persecution should they be delivered back to the tender mercies of the Taliban," says McAllister. "But they'd have to show that they had grounds to fear persecution beforethey applied in order to win asylum."

It shouldn't come as any surprise that people accustomed to the deprivation and depravity of Taliban-controlled Kabul who suddenly find themselves in an airport Hilton with access to satellite TV and 24-hour room service may find their new circumstances somewhat appealing. But Britain already has a backlog of more than 100,000 asylum seekers, and the number of applicants increased last year by 55 percent -- a fact that has the Conservative opposition denouncing the government's policy on asylum and the comparatively generous $250 a month in benefits granted refugees (compared, say, with France's equivalent $30 allowance).

London may have managed to resolve the hijacking crisis without a single serious injury, much less any casualties, at the same time as steadfastly refusing to give in to the hijackers. And for its trouble it landed on the horns of dilemma. Ethics was never easy.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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