ATHENS (Jun. 22)
Omar Mohammed Sofrini, the Palestinian arrested Monday while trying to smuggle arms and explosives aboard a ferry sailing to Israel, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison and fined 70,000 drachmas, the equivalent of $530. He will be jailed pending his appeal.
The 40-year-old Nazareth-born Sofrini was arrested by Greek authorities, who were tipped off by alert Israeli security agents operating in Piraeus, the port of Athens.
He was apprehended aboard the Cypriot-registered car ferry Paloma, which was about to sail for Haifa via Rhodes and Limassol, Cyprus.
An inspection of his Mercedes car yielded a pistol, 101 9mm cartridges, two silencers, 20 detonators and materiel used to assemble explosive charges, all concealed in the chassis.
Greek authorities said Sofrini drove the car from Nuremberg, West Germany and arrived in Athens last Saturday. He entered Greece from Yugoslavia on a West German passport.
The authorities investigated it for possible forgery but determined it was valid. Sofrini is a citizen of West Germany, where he has lived for 20 years.
He reportedly told the Greek police he did not know the weapons and ammunition were hidden in his car. He said it must have been concealed there by a Syrian, Wuafik Gepart, who works in the garage in Germany where Sofrini had his car serviced.
The materiel may have been intended for a terrorist group in Israel.
According to a lawyer appointed by the West German Embassy in Athens to represent Sofrini in court, the suspect left Israel 20 years ago to study in West Germany, married a German woman and has three children. He is a photographic technician by trade.
Sofrini held Israeli citizenship until five years ago, when he was naturalized in Germany. He is a Christian and according to his lawyer has no criminal record in Germany and is not interested in the Palestinian struggle against the Israelis.
He was returning to Israel, the court was told, to visit his ill mother, Fatma, who still lives in Nazareth. The court established that he had not visited any Arab country but visited Israel last summer.
Sofrini broke down and wept in court. He insisted he would not have driven the car if he knew it contained explosives because his own life would have been in danger.
The incident cast light on the fact that Israeli security agents operate at foreign seaports as well as airports, at least in Greece, checking passengers, luggage and cargo bound for Israel.
While most visitors to Israel come by air, large numbers arrive in the many car ferries plying Eastern Mediterranean routes, particularly in summertime.
The 3,985-ton Paloma is one of them. She had 400 passengers, 200 cars and 100 crew members aboard at the time Sofrini was arrested. The ship’s owner, Ilias Trohides, said the suspect was found asleep in his cabin.
Meanwhile, political circles in Athens attributed the stiff sentence imposed on Sofrini to Greece’s desire to appear tough on terrorists as the summer tourist season begins.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)