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Remorseful Pan Am hijacker sentenced to 160 years

From Justice Producer Terry Frieden

Abu Nidal
Acts of terror
New York
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two days of high drama in a Washington courtroom ended late Thursday with a convicted hijacker expressing "sorrow from the depth of my heart," and an angry judge declaring, "I don't buy it," before he sentenced the defendant to 160 years in prison.

Amid sobs and applause from victims and relatives of those killed in the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan, Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini -- leader of an Abu Nidal terrorist band that stormed the plane and murdered 21 passengers -- received the maximum sentence.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan made no effort to conceal his empathy for the dozens of surviving Pan Am passengers and family members of victims who had traveled from around the world to confront the brutal killer who has haunted them for 18 years.

Sullivan said he was deeply moved by two days of heart-wrenching personal stories from survivors and relatives of victims whose lives and families had been wrecked by the bloody hostage-taking and massacre.

"You are a coward and cold-blooded murderer," the judge told Safarini as he sentenced him.

"This is better than you deserve," he said of the prison sentence.

Sullivan approved the plea agreement reached last December in which the United States agreed to drop its pursuit of the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea, for which Safarini would receive three consecutive life sentences totaling 160 years, with virtually no chance of parole.

Adding an extra dose of punishment, Sullivan said he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Safarini be sent to the "Super Max" federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, where he could spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

The sentencing ended an extraordinary day that left veteran prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims, and onlookers in amazement at the soaring rhetoric and exhausting emotion.

'I wish I had died on that plane'

The courtroom was stunned at noon Thursday, when attorneys announced that Safarini wanted to address the court.

Throughout two days of emotional statements from survivors and family members of victims, in which he was called "the personification of evil" and "a beast," Safarini had sat quietly, keeping his eyes cast downward.

In 18 years, he had never publicly declared his thoughts about his deeds.

Survivors and relatives said they were nervous as Safarini -- dressed in an orange prison jump suit and unshackled -- prepared to address them.

Sitting in the witness chair so he would be able to face the passengers and families, Safarini spoke first in Arabic -- which was translated into English by a translator -- and then repeated his lengthy written statement in near-perfect English.

His lawyer said Safarini was heavily medicated with anti-depressants. He was somber, but straight-forward and composed.

"I am so sorry at what happened, so very very sorry," he began. "I take the responsibility for all the pain. My sorrow is from the depth of my heart. If you do not believe I am a person who has a heart, I accept that."

"I wish I had died on that plane," he continued. "I am suffering ... I sit in my cell. I have no hope. No feeling. I known I will die by myself, that I will never see my family again."

The courtroom was perfectly still as Safarini delivered another surprise.

"I don't hate America. Actually, I admire this country's customs, their traditions, their freedom ... When I did this, I believed I was helping the Palestinian people's dream of a homeland. Now I quite believe that the organization (Abu Nidal) -- this was not their aim. I know I was used, and so were the others. I was wrong. I was at fault. I was wrong, and the victims who fell were innocent people," Safarini said. "I was brainwashed."

Safarini said he reached his conclusions and became a changed man from reading while he was imprisoned in Pakistan. There, he was released after serving a 15-year sentence, but was swiftly taken into custody by waiting FBI agents and flown to Washington.

In court Thursday, Sullivan called on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to release the four other hijackers still imprisoned in that country so that U.S. authorities could bring them to the United States to face justice.

Government officials said Safarini's sentencing in an American court 18 years after the crime was a lesson to terrorists that U.S. justice "never forgets."

'I don't know if I believe him or not'

More than 100 passengers of the more than 300 on the Bombay to New York flight remember too, and many felt compelled to attend the sentencing, and recount the horror. Thursday, after more than 20 survivors and family members had spoken and Safarini had addressed them, Sullivan invited the survivors to respond to his statement.

Several stepped forward.

Sunshine Vesuwala, a rookie flight attendant who was used as a human shield during the bloody hijacking was visibly upset facing Safarini.

But she said she was not persuaded by his claims of remorse.

"He knows what he's doing. He just doesn't care," she said.

Pan Am passenger Tushar Nagar agreed. "He's the same person he was 30 years ago," he said.

But British passenger Michael Thexton was less certain.

"I don't know if I believe him or not," he said. "If he could somehow be used to get the message across to other terrorists, then that would be a powerful force of good."

Law student Gargi Dave, who had been an unaccompanied minor on the hijacked flight, did not share the general view of Safarini.

"I think he has a heart. He's a human being just like we are. I don't think he's a monster," she said.

She urged the judge not to put Safarini in solitary confinement, and urged attention to the causes of Islamic fundamentalism.

That declaration drew scoffs and murmurs across most of the courtroom.

Sullivan cast his lot with the majority, fully skeptical of Safarini's statement of contrition.

"I don't buy it," the judge declared.

There was unanimity among veteran lawyers and court-watchers alike, that the unusual spectacle -- the recitation of poetry, tales of suitcases still untouched, pictures of blood-splattered little girls' dresses, tearful stories of survivors' nightmares and families in shambles, a courtroom heavy with anger and despair -- was, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime courtroom experience.

David Brook, a leading national authority on the death penalty from South Carolina, surveyed the crowd of articulate, talented, and educated survivors -- dancers, scientists, business executives and authors-- who flew from five countries and 11 states to be present for the sentencing.

"That all these amazing people came together in that aircraft, that one piece of metal at once, it is unbelievable," he said.

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