Greece's Supreme Court decided Friday to allow the extradition of a Palestinian to the United States to face charges of bombing an American airliner over Hawaii in 1982.
The ruling, which drew immediate U.S. praise, upheld an October decision by a lower court favoring extradition of Mohammad Rashid for the bombing of a Pan American World Airways plane seven years ago, killing one person and injuring 15.The decision, made amid tight security following protests to oppose Rashid's extradition, is not binding on the government, and final authority rests with Justice Minister Yannis Skoularikis, officials said.
Rashid, 35, pleaded he was a victim of mistaken identity, saying his name was Hamdan, not Rashid. The court Friday rejected the plea, agreeing with a lower court.
Rashid's lawyers, who have said their client was a Palestine Liberation Organization officer named Hamdan, said they would submit a plea to the justice minister arguing against extradition because the case was political.
The decision was hailed by U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh from Madrid, Spain, where he was discussing mutual efforts to combat terrorism with officials of Greece and other governments.
"The court's decision sends a strong signal around the world that outright, senseless murder cannot be excused under the dubious claim of political motivation," he said. "There's nothing political about blowing up innocent civilians in the sky.
"The court's ruling should also serve as a warning to those who plan similar acts that `politics' will not protect them from being treated and tried as common thugs and murderers."
In Washington, the State Department said, "We welcome this decision by the Greek Supreme Court."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted that the decision was made in the face of terrorist threats and said he hoped the government would give final approval for Rashid's extradition to the United States.
Rashid was arrested last May on a tip from the U.S. Embassy and served five months in a Greek prison for entering the country on a false Syrian passport. He was later sentenced to eight more months in prison for possessing weapons in his cell.
In the interim, the United States asked Greece to extradite Rashid and sent documents supporting its case against him to the court.
Friday, sharpshooters were posted on rooftops near the court building, and policemen with submachine guns guarded the premises as Rashid was brought in. Photographers were ordered out of the courtroom just before the panel of five judges announced the verdict.
While the case was in the Supreme Court, terrorists made four attacks on members of the Greek judiciary and warned of more attacks if the court recommended his extradition.
Last month, Rashid told Greek reporters a former member of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou's cabinet made a deal with U.S. authorities to extradite him in exchange for George Koskotas, a former banker wanted in Athens on charges of embezzling at least $230 million.
Koskotas, former president of the Bank of Crete, escaped from Greece in November but was arrested two weeks later at an airport near Boston. Greece is seeking his extradition.