Can peace expunge his crime?

The men we have dubbed 'terrorists' have an odd habit of turning up for tea with the Queen
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NEZAR HINDAWI dropped me a note the other day. Remember the name? You should. Mr Hindawiwas the Palestinian who, on 17 April 1986, gave his unsuspecting and pregnant girlfriend a bomb to takeon board an El Al jet at Heathrow. The 1.5 kilograms of Semtex would have destroyed the aircraft, killingall on board, including the young Irish chambermaid who fondly believed that Mr Hindawi would bearriving in Israel a few days later to marry her.

NEZAR HINDAWI dropped me a note the other day. Remember the name? You should. Mr Hindawiwas the Palestinian who, on 17 April 1986, gave his unsuspecting and pregnant girlfriend a bomb to takeon board an El Al jet at Heathrow. The 1.5 kilograms of Semtex would have destroyed the aircraft, killingall on board, including the young Irish chambermaid who fondly believed that Mr Hindawi would bearriving in Israel a few days later to marry her.

After seeking the protection of Syrian security men in London, he decided to give himself up. At the OldBailey six months later, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, the longest sentence in British criminalhistory. Which is why his letter to me carried the address of Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor, inCambridgeshire.

It was polite but carried one consistent message: that if IRA killers imprisoned for "political" crimes,could be freed, then he - Nezar Hindawi - should also be released.In his poor English, he wrote: "Mycase is a political as you know, no one will go to blow up an aircraft for personal matter. I do believe thatif it was not an Israeli aircraft and not in UK I would not have that sentenced which it is the longest inUK's recent history."

The first problem for me in Mr Hindawi's letter was not political.Many IRA men - and Protestant killers -in Northern Ireland have discovered, after years in prison, a profound sense of unease and regret andcontrition at their terrible deeds. Even old Gusty Spence, the first of loyalism's sinister murderers, cameout of Long Kesh a born-again Christian. Inside the new Northern Ireland Assembly will be men whosehands have touched the springs of dreadful deeds.

Yet not a hint of remorse could I find in Mr Hindawi's letter, not a single, tiny clue that he might feelsorry for what he had tried to do. The phrase "no one will go to blow up an aircraft for personal matter"was chilling. His categorisation of evil is quite clear. It would be unforgivable to blow up a plane for"personal" reasons - presumably because one hated the passengers - but not, it appears, for politicalreasons, when the passengers (along with Ann Murphy, his pregnant girlfriend) are of no personalinterest.

So the letter which arrived at my Beirut home this week was not exactly the work of a repentant. True, theIRA and loyalist prisoners are not going home because of their guilty consciences. It is a political deal, asMr Hindawi has astutely noted. But some of the Irish prisoners have understood the nature of forgivenessas well as compassion. These were not elements in Mr Hindawi's prose. He is thinking about himself, inparticular the long years he still has to serve at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Referring to his own case as "history", he continues: "The PLO and Israel made a peace deal also Jordan.Even the relation between Syria and UK is in its best in all aspects.Few weeks ago the Saudi Arabiaauthorities released to the British nurses. Cook the foreign secretary said 'it is a great show of humanegenerosity' and you know what was the reactions by the British media ... look what happened after thepeace deal in N Ireland, the British Government transferred all IRA prisoners to N Ireland and lots ofthem been released. Most of them [were] transferred and released even befor the signed of the peace deal... I wrote to the Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Robben Cook, Ken Livingstone MP, TonyBenn MP, D Skinner MP and others asking them to release me, or even regards me as an IRA and releasme. I have not reply yet."

Nor am I surprised. The problem for Messrs Blair, Straw and Cook would be obvious. For an Irish peacewhich the majority of people in both Ireland and the United Kingdom support, the old Thatcherite policyof criminalising all villains has been abandoned.

There are now childkillers/wife-murderers/mafia hit men and others - who must stay in prison - and"political" killers and murderers and hitmen (whose targets suffered just as much as the victims of thewife-murderers) who are going home. Like it or not, that's how most wars end. There's a kind ofcrossing-off of sin. The men we have dubbed "terrorists" - Jomo Kenyatta, Menachem Begin,Archbishop Makarios, Gerry Adams, Yassir Arafat - have an odd habit of turning up for talks at DowningStreet or tea with the Queen.

But where does that leave the prisoners from other wars? In theory, the PLO-Israeli peace could havesome effect on Mr Hindawi. But the peace is already dead and, as Mr Hindawi says (though somewhatobliquely), he thought he was working with the Syrians - whose relations with Europe, especially France,are now close, but who insist that the original land- for-peace deal be honoured by the Israelis.

Oddly, Mr Hindawi did not dwell on his Syrian connection. He certainly took refuge at the London homeof Syrian security men. He signed a statement for police, saying that he had been given the bag containingthe bomb by an officer working for General Mohamed el-Khouly, head of Syrian air force intelligence. Incourt, Hindawi retracted this statement, claiming he had been forced to sign it unread and believed he waspart of a conspiracy by Israeli agents intended to damage Syria.He was convicted and Britain broke offrelations with Damascus.

Israel reacted at the time with ferocious speeches, condemning "Syria's central role in terrorism", though Ido remember an odd incident a few days later when I met the outgoing British ambassador to Syria in theVIP lounge at Damascus airport. There was some evidence, he said, that the Israelis "knew the bomb wasbeing brought to Heathrow". He would say no more. Had the Israelis learned of the bomb by tappingSyrian embassy phones? Had they been tipped off by British security? Had they encouraged the Syriansinto a bomb plot?

Clearly no Israeli government would bomb its own aircraft. But, if they knew about it in advance, theycould, once the bomb arrived at Heathrow, have Miss Murphy arrested and end up "proving" that Syriawas a "centre of international terror".

Which is exactly what happened. According to President Assad's biographer, Patrick Seale, the Syrianleadership had no knowledge of the bomb plot and its intelligence services had been given too littlepolitical control. El-Khouly, this implied, took the decision to send Hindawi to London on his own.

Seale suggests that Hindawi was a double agent, also working for the Israelis. Jacques Chirac, the Frenchprime minister, was quoted in the Washington Times as saying that West German Chancellor HelmutKohl and his foreign minister believed "the Hindawi plot was a provocation designed to embarrass Syria"and that "probably people connected with the Israeli Mossad" were behind it.

So which Nezar Hindawi was writing to me? The man who notes Syria's good current relations withBritain? The would-be IRA man who is tired of prison? General el-Khouly's hit-man? Or a double agent?"What the interest of Great Britain to keep me in prison while it has transfered and released IRAprisoners?" he asks in his letter. "Do you have a reply, please? Would you please found a reply for me?"

I haven't written back. I think I'd like to know a bit more about the real Nezar Hindawi and about whathappened on 17 April 1986. I'd also like to know how a man - whoever he thought he was working for -could hand a bomb to the young woman who loved him, the woman who carried his child, knowing itrepresented her doom and that of all those with her.

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