Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

US Should Let Italy Jail Abu Abbas

Apr. 29, 2003

April 29, 2003 - LAST WEEK in Baghdad, US special operation forces apprehended Abu Abbas, a convicted Palestinian terrorist who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. During the hijacking, a wheelchair-bound US citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered. The status of Abbas's captivity is now in limbo. Because Abbas is no longer a significant terrorist player and because his presence in a US court could complicate the important role of the United States in the Palestinian crisis, we should release Abu Abbas to the Italians, where he faces a lifetime in jail.

When the United States invaded Iraq under the justification that it was secretly harboring terrorists, Abbas's presence in Baghdad was already well known. He freely gave interviews to Western media.

He has never been linked to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. His capture, no doubt, is significant, but only as a matter of closing a tragic episode in the annals of terrorism, not because we suspected he was planning any new events. The White House, searching for any terrorists in Iraq, heralded the capture, arguing that US forces would continue to hunt down terrorists and bring them to justice. It is strong language, but it may prove counterproductive in this instance.

Not every terrorist is of primary import to the United States, and Abbas is no bin Laden. This may sound disrespectful to the memory of Klinghoffer, but the United States must balance Abbas's conviction against other important national security matters. A US courtroom may be an appropriate forum to try and convict terrorists, especially those truly linked to the 'war on terrorism,' but not for every terrorist, not in every instance.

In Abbas's case, three parties have claimed some right to him. The United States, of course, found Abbas and has him captive. He was, nearly 20 years ago, responsible for the death of an American citizen. Italy in 1986 convicted Abbas in absentia and sentenced him to five life terms in prison; the Achille Lauro, after all, was an Italian ship. Over the years, Italy has continuously tried to extradite Abbas as he traveled in Tunisia, Libya, and Gaza. Finally, the PLO has now argued that Abbas cannot be tried by the United States or Italy, as both were witnesses to the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which stated that no member of the PLO would be brought to court for any action before the accord was signed.

The PLO's argument holds little legal weight. The administration has rightly concluded that the accord applies only to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Neither the United States nor Italy gave full amnesty to terrorists, especially those who were responsible for US deaths.

But simply because we can dismiss the PLO's position doesn't mean that the United States should. Bringing Abbas to the United States to be tried would have significant consequences that should be weighed against the opportunity for a new US-led effort to renew the Middle East peace process.

First, the Abbas case will not be easy. A criminal complaint was filed against him soon after the Achille Lauro incident but was dropped because of lack of evidence. It is unlikely that the evidence has gotten any stronger since the attack. It is also unclear whether the statute of limitations against Abbas has expired. While many of our present antiterrorism laws provide for no statute of limitations, most are not retroactive. If Abbas is brought here, there will likely be a significant amount of time spent on the question of whether we have jurisdiction. Even so, we have to be prepared for the possibility that he will not be found guilty.

More significantly, Abbas's trial in the United States could undermine our important role as an objective arbiter of a conflict that rages in a part of the world that so desperately needs peace. While Italy, as a member of the European Union, has been a presence at the peace accords, no country but the United States has the stature or the will to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to the peace table. It will be difficult if we hope to bring the parties together and at the same time seek to convict one of the party's former leaders.

Since an alternative exists in Italy -- that is, that Abbas will spend the rest of his life in jail -- the United States can both get some justice and protect its standing as a neutral party.

As the military effort in Iraq is winding down, many European and Arab allies are urging the United States to refocus its efforts on the Palestinian crisis. Now, a new Cabinet and prime minister have been approved by the PLO, and the Bush administration has said it will release its road map to peace when the new leadership is in place.

The next few weeks could be very productive for the United States, the Israelis, and the Palestinians. Abbas's trial in an American court is simply not worthy of disrupting that process.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“US Should Let Italy Jail Abu Abbas.” The Boston Globe, April 29, 2003.