Court Hearing Klinghoffer Suit to Consider Whether PLO is State

The 1988 declaration of statehood by the Palestine Liberation Organization is one of the main points of contention in a civil suit filed here that calls on the PLO to pay damages for the brutal murder of an elderly Jewish man by Palestinian terrorists five-and-a-half years ago.

Relatives of Leon Klinghoffer, the 69-year-old wheelchair-bound man shot and thrown into the Mediterranean during the October 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, are trying to sue the PLO for an unspecified amount of money.

But the PLO maintains it cannot be sued, citing a 1976 U.S. law that makes sovereign states immune from such lawsuits. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will have to decide whether the PLO’s 2-year-old self-declared state of “Palestine” is indeed a sovereign nation.

A lower court already ruled that the PLO should be denied immunity, but the PLO, represented by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, has appealed.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith called the PLO a terrorist organization and said such groups do not deserve the legal protections offered to foreign governments.

“The PLO does not have the fundamental legal attributes of a state, including a defined territory, a functioning government that controls a territory, or a permanent population,” said the ADL brief, which was filed Wednesday.

It said the PLO could not claim immunity based on its status at the United Nations, because it has observer status and is not recognized as a member state.

CASE COULD SET IMPORTANT PRECEDENT

Steven Freeman, director of the ADL’s legal affairs department, said the case had wide-ranging implications for future prosecution of the PLO or any organization accused of terrorist activities.

“It would be significant if this established a precedent that the PLO can be sued here for violations of law in which Americans are victimized,” said Freeman.

The Achille Lauro was hijacked while in Egyptian waters en route from Alexandria to Port Said. Four Palestinian terrorists, who panicked when their cache of weapons was discovered, changed their original plans to disembark in Israel and instead hijacked the ship.

After ordering the ship toward Syria where they eventually were not allowed to dock — one of the gunmen shot Klinghoffer in the head and then had the body and wheelchair dumped into the sea.

The original operation was reportedly organized by a faction of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Front, headed by Mohammed (Abul) Abbas, at the time aligned with Yasir Arafat.

The four hijackers, who finally turned over the ship at Port Said, in exchange for safe passage, were being taken to Tunisia aboard an Egyptian plane when U.S. fighter jets diverted the plane to a base in Italy.

Attempts to have the four extradited to the United States failed, and they were sentenced in 1986 by an Italian court to what were criticized by many as light sentences.

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