More than 30 years have passed since Mohammed Rashed planted a homemade bomb under a seat cushion on Pan Am Flight 830 leaving Tokyo for Hawaii.
After setting the timer, Rashed, a top lieutenant in the pro-Palestinian 15th of May group, left the plane with his wife and young son. A 16-year-old boy from Japan boarded and took his seat.
When the bomb exploded a few hours later, the boy died and 12 others were injured.
Rashed was later arrested, eventually admitted his guilt and went to prison. He finished his sentence three years ago and now finds himself halfway across the world, in a Buffalo courtroom, fighting for his freedom.
“The man is 66 years old and just wants to live his life in peace,” said Robert L. Tucker, the assistant federal public defender seeking Rashed’s release from the Federal Detention Center in Batavia.
Prosecutors say Rashed, who was sent to Batavia after his release from prison, faces deportation. But he is a man without a country, or at least a country willing to open its arms to him.
Born in Jordan, he would welcome the chance to return, Tucker said. The U.S. government is also looking at the West Bank, an area Israel now controls.
“We both want him out of immigration detention,” said Christopher Dempsey, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer. “We both want him out of the United States.”
Rashed’s fight for freedom is the latest chapter in the history of one of the world’s first aviation-based terrorist plots, an attack that proceeded 9/11 and even Lockerbie.
It was 1982 and Rashed’s ties to the 15th of May group and Abu Ibrahim, the so-called “Bomb Man,” became the subject of newspaper headlines across the world. More than 30 years after the Pan Am bombing, Ibrahim is still a fugitive and still on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
In Rashed, federal prosecutors have a potential key witness in the event Ibrahim is ever captured and tried. Tucker made no mention of Ibrahim in court but repeatedly suggested the government is dragging its feet in finding Rashed a new home.
Dempsey says the government is “operating at the highest levels” to find Rashed a new home and indicated a third option – a country he declined to identify in court – may have surfaced.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara pointed with concern to Rashed’s three years of post-prison detention in Batavia. “The man served his sentence,” Arcara said at one point. “I’m concerned about the open-endedness.”
Prosecutors say Rashed boarded the Pan Am flight in Iraq and, while on his way to Tokyo, hid the bomb under a window seat, set the timer and engaged the device. He and his family disembarked in Tokyo and Toru Ozawa, a Japanese teen traveling with his parents, got on board and chose the same seat.
A few hours later, as the plane crossed the Pacific headed for Honolulu, the bomb exploded, blowing a huge hole in the cabin floor. The pilot was able to land the plane safely but Ozawa was killed, his mother and father witnesses to his bloody death.
“At the time, my honest emotion was to wish the plane would crash into the Hawaiian ocean as I had lost the will to live,” Ozawa’s father said in a statement read at Rashed’s sentencing.
By the time Rashed arrived in the United States, he had already served eight years in Greece, where he was first arrested. He eventually took a plea deal here and the government, eager to see him blow the whistle on other terrorists and future terrorist acts, agreed to a shorter-than-expected sentence of 17 years.
Ibrahim, of course, was at the very top of their list of suspects. Still on the run, he’s believed to be in his late 70s and living in Lebanon.
Without mentioning Ibrahim, Dempsey said Rashed continues to express hatred for the U.S and continues to communicate with radical individuals.
“He has not changed his tune one bit,” he told Arcara. “We need to get him out of here.”
Tucker said the allegations are baseless and accused the government of conveniently using the word “terrorist” to stir up fear about Rashed.
He said his client would like to return to Jordan but, absent that, would opt for a life here in the U.S. He said Rashed has a support system in Washington, D.C., that would allow him to settle there.
As part of that effort, Rashed has filed legal papers challenging his detention. Sealed by a court order, those papers remain secret.