A May 6, 1986 file photo of Youssef Magied al-Molqui being held during his trial in Genoa. 
AP Photo/Ferdinando Meazza

Achille Lauro Hijacker Released From Prison

May 03, 2009 03:22 PM
by Rachel Balik
In 1985, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Italian cruise ship and killed one American passenger as part of an ongoing battle with Israel.

Hijacker Released Early For Good Behavior

After serving 24 years in prison, the last of the four Palestinians responsible for the Achille Lauro hijacking has been released. Youssef Magied al-Molqui was released six years short of his 30-year sentence for good behavior, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. In 1996, al-Molqui failed to return from a 12-day furlough, but was arrested in Spain three weeks later. He was released from an Italian prison last week and authorities there plan to expel him from the country.

Al-Molqui was arrested for hijacking the cruise ship Achille Lauro. During the hijacking, he shot Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish man from the United States. Klinghoffer was the only passenger killed during the hijacking.

Klinghoffer’s daughters issued a statement criticizing Al-Molqui’s early release, the Associated Press reported.

“There should be no good behavior clause for terrorist murderers. This is a travesty,” said Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer in the statement. The Anti-Defamation League is also unhappy with the decision, according to AP.

Background: The Achille Lauro hijacking

On Oct. 7, 1985, four men captured the Achille Lauro, a Naples-based cruise ship, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners that were being held by Israel at the time. The BBC says that the hijackers were all members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, which was an offshoot group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yassar Arafat.

The ship was hijacked for three days, during which time the terrorists shot Klinghoffer and dumped his body overboard. On Oct. 10, Egypt allowed the ship to dock and in exchange for the hostages, permitted all four hijackers to leave the country in a chartered plane.

By order of President Ronald Reagan, United States fighter jets surrounded the escape plane and forced it to land at a NATO base in Sicily, where the men were arrested by Italian authorities after a testy jurisdiction argument with the United States. Ringleader Abu Abbas was allowed to go free, but the other four were tried in Italy.

They told ANSA Italian news agency that they actually never intended to hijack the ship. Their plan was to travel on the ship to Israel, where they would disembark and take Israeli hostages. But a crew member caught them with guns, Time magazine reported. The hijackers had “Soviet-made submachine guns, hand grenades and explosives.” They began firing their weapons, called all the passengers into the dining room, and took over the ship. Time magazine offers a detailed account of those three days.

Hundreds more passengers had been on the Achille Lauro, but disembarked the morning of the hijacking for a shore excursion, Time said. The ship was going to pick up the passengers later that night when the men attacked.

Four hijackers were convicted in Italy. Two were paroled in 1991, and a third was paroled in 2008. Abbas, the mastermind of the attack, was allowed to go free by Italian authorities in Sicily in 1985. He was then tried in absentia in an Italian court the following year and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Abu Abbas was eventually captured in Iraq in 2003 and died while being held by the United States a year later, the AP reported. His death and capture were controversial due to an agreement made between the United States and Palestine in the 1990s stating that America would not press charges for acts committed before the Interim Peace accords were signed.

Related Topic: Fictionalized accounts of the hijacking

The hijacking has captivated the interest of a few artists over the years. The first movie made about the event was called “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro” and was a TV movie in 1989. It was nominated for three Emmy awards, IMDB says.

Another TV movie was made a year later. “Voyage of Terror” was told from the viewpoint of Leon Klinghoffer and his wife Marilyn, played by Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint. The movie also looks at the stories of other hostages and hijackers, says. The movie was filmed aboard the actual ship.

John Adam’s Opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer”, played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991. The Opera was harshly critiqued, partially because of the intense emotion it aroused, also because it gave treatment to feelings of terrorists.

Reference: The Palestinian Liberation Organization


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