Appeal court frees Stansted hijackers

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Nine afghan men who hijacked an airliner to Britain in February 2000 - leading to the UK's longest airport stand-off - were cleared by the Court of Appeal yesterday.

The group had asserted that their decision to hijack the Boeing 747 on an internal flight from Kabul had been taken because they faced the stark choice of "flee or die" at the hands of the Taliban.

The Ariane airlines plane was surrounded by police at Stansted airport for 76 hours before the 156 hostages were released. The men were found guilty at the Old Bailey of hijacking, false imprisonment and firearms offences 17 months ago.

Yesterday Lord Justice Longmore, Mr Justice Hooper and Mrs Justice Cox ruled the convictions were "unsafe" because the law relating to whether the men had acted under duress had been wrongly applied at their trial. While seven of the group have already served their sentences, the brothers who masterminded the plan - Ali and Mohammed Safi - were expected to be free within days.

Their solicitor, Imran Khan, said: "They are people who have a clean character, that's something they wanted the world to know and they did this out of necessity, not economic or other reasons."

Richard Ferguson QC, who represented the Safi brothers, added: "There was an onus on the defence to prove duress and that's where the legal debate centred and that's really the basis of the Court of Appeal's decision today."

The shadow Transport Secretary Tim Collins described it as a "worrying judgment" while the Crown Prosecution Service said it would be appealing.