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Fighting terror

Abbas arrest triggers legal debate

©Associated Press
April 17, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is debating whether to bring terrorist Abu Abbas to the United States to stand trial in the 1985 murder of a U.S. citizen or let him serve prison time in Italy.

While no decisions were made Wednesday, officials said Abbas would not go free, despite claims by the Palestinian Authority that an agreement signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1995 protects him from arrest in the deadly hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

Abbas' capture in Iraq by U.S. military forces confronts the government with a legal tangle involving U.S. law, Italian law, international law and, some argue, the Oslo peace accords. Officials said their first priority is to determine through interrogation whether Abbas can provide useful intelligence about Iraqi leaders, plots by terror groups and the presence of other terrorists who might have been sheltered by Saddam Hussein.

The legal question, whether to proceed with a U.S. criminal case against Abbas, can be answered later, they said.

A conviction would give President Bush an important legal and political victory in the global war on terrorism, some experts said.

"This is exactly the kind of thing you want to be doing, making it very clear that there will be no statute of limitations on those who kill Americans anywhere in the world," said John Norton Moore of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.

Abbas, 55, had eluded arrest since four of his followers in the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the Achille Lauro as it sailed from Egypt to Israel. They demanded that Israel release 50 imprisoned Palestinians.

The hijackers shot and killed passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69, dumping his body and wheelchair into the Mediterranean Sea.

Abbas was briefly taken into custody but was gone when an Italian court sentenced him the next year to life in prison for masterminding the affair.

Italy is seeking to extradite Abbas and put him in prison.

U.S. intelligence officials told the Washington Post that Abbas has not played an active role in terrorist activities for at least a decade, and the Palestinian Liberation Front is not believed to have any connection with Osama bin Laden or the al-Qaida network.

U.S. officials discounted claims by the Palestinian Authority that Abbas is protected under a 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

That deal dictated that no PLO officials were to be arrested for violent acts committed before the Oslo accords, the 1993 Israel-PLO mutual recognition pact, but Justice Department officials said they did not believe that applies in Abbas' case because he was captured in a third country.

-- Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

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