Brothers sentenced to five years for Stansted hijack

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The Independent Online

Two brothers who organised a plane hijack from Afghanistan to Britain were today jailed for five years each at the Old Bailey.

Six of their followers were jailed for 30 months and a seventh, who was 18 at the time, for 27 months.

The judge Sir Edwin Jowitt said he accepted that the group, members of the Young Intellectuals of Afghanistan, had initially been fleeing the Taliban regime. But it had turned into a criminal act after the Ariana 727 plane was forced to fly on to Britain after landing in Moscow.

He said the brothers had prolonged the 70–hour siege at Stansted Airport in Essex in order to make a political point.

The judge, who removed all reporting restrictions on the case, said the jail terms would have been "in double figures" for Ali and Mohammed Safi if it had been a criminal hijacking from the start.

The siege at Stansted was Britain's longest airport stand–off and ended peacefully after the men surrendered.

Sir Edwin said about 100 passengers and non–essential flight crew had been kept against their wills in circumstances they found terrifying.

The remaining 50 were made up of crew, the hijackers and their families.

The judge said: "I accept that there was no intention to harm the hostages, the guns were unloaded before arrival at Stansted and the threats were play acting."

He added that the initial hijacking "was brought about by fear of death at the hand of a tyrannical, unreasoning and merciless regime".

But the passengers were not allowed to leave the plane after being flown from Afghanistan to Moscow and were used as "bargaining chips" at Stansted where the men demanded to see a United Nations representative.

The judge added: "It displayed a callous disregard for their interests, their sensitivities and their fears."

In the dock were: Ali Safi, 38, Abdul Shohab, 21, Taimur Shah, 29, Kazim Mohammed, 28, Reshad Ahmadi, 20, Nazamuddin Mohammidy, 28, Abdul Ghayur, 25, Mohammed Showaib, 26, and Mohammed Safi, 33.

They had pleaded not guilty to hijacking, false imprisonment of passengers and crew and possessing firearms and grenades in February 2000.

But at a retrial in December, the jury rejected their claims that they acted under duress and found them guilty. They were remanded until today for reports.

The armed stand–off at the Essex airport and two lengthy trials were estimated to have cost around £12 million.

The men took over the jet shortly after it took off from Kabul and ordered the captain at gunpoint to fly to Britain.

After landing at Stansted Airport, near London, they threatened to kill passengers and blow up the plane during a three–day armed stand–off in which 200 flights were disrupted.

The men, who were armed with four guns, a knife and two hand grenades, surrendered to police after demanding to talk to a United Nations representative.

During the siege, the captain and air crew escaped through an open window in the cockpit.

A steward was beaten up and thrown down the aircraft's steps as the hijackers became angry that they would not be able to fly out of the airport.

The Afghans first faced trial in January 2001 but a jury could not agree on verdicts.

The second trial started less than a month from the September 11 outrage in America and ended after the fall of the Taliban.

The judge had warned the jury against prejudice to Muslims and excused a man who said work colleagues had witnessed the airliners hitting the World Trade Centres.

Bruce Houlder QC, prosecuting, said the hijack appeared to have been prolonged in order to make a political point.

He said: "They went rather further in their demands than the simple saving of their lives."

The leader of the group, Ali Safi, 38, a former university lecturer, told the court he had once been jailed by the Taliban for playing chess.

After the siege, half the passengers on board – around 74 people – asked for refugee status in Britain.

The defendant's application cannot be processed until they leave jail but the then Home Secretary Jack Straw said they would have to go to a third neutral country.

But before sentencing today, lawyers for the men said they were ready to return home in order to help rebuild Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.

Richard Ferguson QC, defending Ali Safi, said a letter from the "Safi Tribe" in Afghanistan had been sent to Prime Minister Tony Blair pleading for leniency.

Mr Ferguson said: "It is an irony that by the course of events since this hijack, the regime which now exists, in other circumstances, is one in which these men might have led a constructive and fruitful role."

The men had no option but to hijack a plane after finding their names on a Taliban death list.

Robert Brown, defending Ahmadi, said: "What he wants to do more than anything else, is to return and take part in the reconstruction of his homeland."

Robert Overbury, defending Mohammidy, said he had not had contact with his wife and three–year–old daughter since September 11.

"In addition to facing a prison sentence in a foreign country, is the added stress of not knowing what happened to his wife and child," added Mr Overbury.

Robert Fortune, defending Mohammed Showaib, 26, said he was an essentially decent person who had faced dangers. His brothers had been arrested by the Taliban.

The girl Showaib had wanted to marry had been found dead at the bottom of a well.

Michel Massih QC, defending Mohammed Safi, asked the judge to "show courage" in his sentencing of a "unique case".

He said: "In the heart of this case is a human tragedy of immense proportions.

"The public in this country would pay tribute to a sentence which punishes these men – although they have already suffered at the hands of the Taliban – but which also allows them to go back to Afghanistan to play a wider role."

The threats to blow up the plane and to use their guns were not meant. Some of the passengers were the wives and children of the defendants, he added.