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German court upholds principle of no deal with hostage-takers

In a footnote to the current Mideast turmoil, the D"usseldorf Higher Regional Court on Tuesday sentenced Abbas Ali Hamadi to a surprising long prison term, 13 years, for kidnapping, attempted extortion of the West German government, and smuggling of explosives. Abbas Hamadi is something of a bit player. He is the older brother of Muhammad Ali Hamadi, also held in West Germany on charges of explosives smuggling, hijacking of an American airliner in 1985, and murder of a United States Navy diver on board the plane.

In the 15 months since he was arrested, Washington has vainly tried to get Bonn to extradite Muhammad Hamadi to the US. Recently, it expressed concern about the decision to try the 23-year-old in a West German juvenile court, where penalties are less severe than in a regular criminal court.

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The West German government has a policy that goes back 15 years of not trading terrorists for hostages. Still, the US had feared Bonn would yield to the threat of the Middle Eastern abductors of West German businessman Rudolf Cordes and release Muhammad Hamadi to free Mr. Cordes.

At the time of their abduction in January 1987 following the arrest of Muhammad Hamadi in Frankfurt, the fate of both Cordes and fellow West German hostage Alfred Schmidt was linked by the kidnappers to West German treatment of Muhammad Hamadi, and especially to the demand that he not be extradited to the US.

Mr. Schmidt was freed last September, reportedly in connection with payment of a ransom, though Bonn denies having made any payment.

The length of Abbas Hamadi's jail sentence was a surprise on two counts. The prosecution had asked only for 11 years - and several legal commentators here have found the evidence slim for the more serious charges.

No witness, including Schmidt, identified Abbas Hamadi as one of the abductors, nor did the accused ever confess to participating in the kidnapping. Instead, the evidence presented in court consisted of Abbas Hamadi's fingerprints on a letter sent by Schmidt to his mother while he was held hostage, and a wire-tapped phone conversation between Abbas Hamadi in Lebanon and friends in West Germany in January 1987 after the kidnapping.

Abbas Hamadi is a naturalized West German citizen who had lived in the Saarland for seven years and had a German wife and child. He flew to Beirut in January 1987 just after the arrest of his brother in Frankfurt and just before the kidnapping of Cordes and Schmidt, then flew back to Germany. In the phone call Abbas Hamadi answered affirmatively to the question: ``Did you abduct the man?'' The man in question was described as a German, but no name was given.

In declaring the court's verdict Tuesday, Judge Klaus Arend noted the unprecedented pressure under which the court operated in trying a defendant for the abduction of a man still being held hostage. Some West German commentators interpreted the severe sentence as a deliberate signal by the court that it would not be swayed by threats. Earlier in the trial Mr. Arend said Abbas Hamadi would be tried according to the law, and that if there were to be any political deal afterward involving leniency, that would have to come from the West German government.

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Such a possibility remains entirely hypothetical, since in the past 15 months, so far as is known, Cordes' abductors have continued to focus on the fate of Muhammad rather than Abbas Hamadi. But this has not stopped such speculation in West Germany.

Washington would oppose any trade of Abbas Hamadi for Cordes on the principle that there should be no deals with hostage-takers. But such a trade would not be as sensitive politically for Washington, since it would involve no one suspected of terrorist acts against Americans.

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