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Law

Survivors condemn hijacker in Pan Am massacre

Passengers and kin speak against convicted terrorist

From Terry Frieden and Carol Cratty
CNN Washington Bureau

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
Abu Nidal
Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini appeared in court Wednesday to begin the sentencing phase for his role as lead hijacker of Pan Am Flight 73.

He was convicted of murdering 21 passengers, including two U.S. citizens.

The deadly standoff on the airport tarmac in Karachi, Pakistan, captured world attention on September 5, 1986, when Safarini and three subordinate commandos took over the Pan Am plane with 379 passengers during a stop on a Bombay to New York flight.

It ended amid a hail of bullets 16 hours later with wounded survivors and hijackers alike leaping from wings of the plane to the tarmac.

About 50 surviving passengers of the flight were reunited for Safarini's sentencing.

The survivors and family members of murdered passengers traveled from five countries and 11 states to witness and participate in the process that many have told federal prosecutors may finally bring closure to their long nightmare.

The federal judge presiding over the proceedings agreed to let about 20 passengers testify in a session that could run into a second day.

"It may seem a long time ago to most people, but it's like yesterday to me," said Sunshine Vesuwala, a flight attendant.

Vesuwala pointed at Safarini and recalled he had murdered a U.S. citizen by shooting him at point blank range aboard the aircraft after demanding to know, "Are you a man?"

Pointing and nearly shouting at Safarini, the flight attendant demanded to know of him, "What makes a man? A weapon? He's no man. He hid behind flight attendants when the plane door was open."

At the end of the hearing Safarini, a member of the Abu Nidal terror group, is expected to be sentenced to three consecutive life terms plus 25 years -- a total of 160 years.

The Jordanian citizen, now 41, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington last December after battling successfully in court to avoid the death penalty.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan began the emotional session speaking haltingly, clearly on the verge of tears, and he struggled to keep his composure before a nearly packed courtroom.

"I feel your loss. I feel your pain. I feel your anger, and I feel your emotion," Sullivan said. He promised the one-time passengers and family members he would give them as much time as they wanted to tell their stories.

"What we victims really want is to tear this man apart one limb at a time," said Prabhat Krishnaswamy, whose father was murdered in the hijacking. "But we believe in a system of laws."

He told the judge he was disappointed the death penalty was not imposed. "This was a victory of legal maneuvering over common sense," he said.

Sullivan expressed strong support and drew applause from onlookers when he promised he would recommend lifelong "solitary confinement in a facility that essentially is under ground."

Safarini, seated in the courtroom wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, watched the proceedings but seemed to offer no reaction to the comments about him and his actions.

Seventeen years earlier, as he threatened to blow up the plane, he radioed to the tower, "It doesn't make any difference to us whether we die or live. On the contrary, we seek no more than death and martyrdom."

Safarini was captured in a Karachi hospital within hours of the hijacking. After serving a 15-year sentence in Pakistan, he was released but was immediately grabbed by waiting FBI agents who whisked him to Washington to stand trial. Three others also were arrested, charged and convicted in Pakistan.

Safarini pleaded guilty to 95 criminal counts, including conspiracy and the murders of U.S. citizens Rajesh Kumar and Surendra Patel, both of Indian heritage and residents of Southern California.

Kumar, 29, was bringing his grandmother and aunt to the United States to celebrate his new citizenship.

He was the first passenger killed. Safarini singled him out because of his U.S. passport.

Kumar's body was dumped from the plane onto the tarmac as Safarini's demand for a flight to Cyprus to free Palestinian prisoners was rejected.

Patel, 50, with a master's degree from the University of Southern California, was married and had three children, ages 14, 12 and 6 -- all U.S. citizens.

His body was among 20 found in a heap after what officials called "the final massacre."

"The auxiliary power unit on the aircraft stopped working and lights dimmed. The hijackers allegedly herded the passengers into the center section of the aircraft and positioned themselves with one hijacker at each corner of the aircraft," according to a Justice Department statement made in 2002.

"When the lights went out, the hijackers allegedly opened fire on the assembled passengers and threw hand grenades into the crowd."

Kumar's 81-year-old grandmother, an Indian citizen, also was among the dead. More than 100 passengers were wounded or injured in the wild spray of gunfire from the hijackers.

The Justice Department Office of Victim Assistance and the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia helped arrange the passenger reunion.


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