The Incredible Story Of Neerja's Hijacker's Trial Is Worth Another Movie

25/02/2016 1:55 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Undated portrait of Neerja Mishra, (Neerja Bhanot), the Pan Am flight attendant and senior flight purser killed in the Karachi hijacking, that has been hailed as “heroine of the hijack” in Indian newspapers shown Sept. 9, 1986. She reportedly warned the cockpit crew of the gunmen, allowing them to escape and strand the jet on the tarmac. She died on Friday, September 5, 1986, two days before her 23rd birthday. (AP Photo)

The film Neerja revives the memory of the Pan American World Airways Flight 73 hijacking. The flight from Mumbai to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt was grounded in Karachi. You probably know the story by now. The film Neerja has done us a great service by memorialising the memory of the flight purser Neerja Bhanot. Of the 380 passengers and crew, 22 died. Had it not been for Neerja, nobody would have survived.

Also Read: 'Neerja' Review: A Fitting Tribute

One needs to be thankful to the filmmakers particularly because Western documentation and representation of the hijacking has focused mostly on the British and Americans, giving less attention not just to Indians, who were a majority of the victims, but also noting Neerja’s contribution as a formality.

"What we victims really want is to tear this man apart one limb at a time. But we believe in a system of laws."

The four hijackers planned to blow up themselves, and the plane, but they couldn’t do so because the lights went out after 16 hours. They were arrested and jailed in Pakistan. Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment because they were Palestinian Muslims fighting for their homeland.

While the others escaped, the lead hijacker, Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Masud al-Safarini, was handed over by Pakistan to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States’ FBI, in 2001. He was taken to the US in 2004 and sentenced to jail for 160 years.

As in India, his crime attracted capital punishment in the US. Unlike India the United States has plea bargain. In exchange of pleading guilty and co-operating with the trial, he would not be hanged.

"I am so sorry at what happened, so very very sorry… I take the responsibility for all the pain. My sorrow is from the depth of my heart. If you do not believe I am a person who has a heart, I accept that. I wish I had died on that plane.

The man who was prepared to blow himself up in 1986, wanted to live in 2004. During the hijacking in 1986, he had said, "It doesn't make any difference to us whether we die or live. On the contrary, we seek no more than death and martyrdom." David Headley, who recently answered an Indian court’s question via video conferencing, also took the advantage of plea bargain.

Safarini’s trial in the US is worth another movie. Around 50 survivors of the flight, along with family members of some of those who died, flew down from five countries to attend the trial in Washington. Over two days, many of them got a chance to directly address Safarini and speak their mind to him. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Safarini addressed the court.

One flight attendant, Sunshine Vesuwala, told the court that before killing a US citizen, Safarini asked him, “Are you a man?” Vesuwala added: “"What makes a man? A weapon? He's no man. He hid behind flight attendants when the plane door was open."

Prabhat Krishnaswamy, whose father was killed in the hijacking, said, "What we victims really want is to tear this man apart one limb at a time. But we believe in a system of laws."

CNN has a detailed account of the two days long courtroom drama. Survivors called him names one after the other, one called him a beast, another the personification of evil. Safarini did not look them in the eye. But after they had finished, he decided to speak – the first time in 18 years that the world would hear from him. He took the the witness chair so that he could be face to face with the survivors and families of the dead. This is what he had to say:

"I am so sorry at what happened, so very very sorry… I take the responsibility for all the pain. My sorrow is from the depth of my heart. If you do not believe I am a person who has a heart, I accept that. I wish I had died on that plane. I am suffering ... I sit in my cell. I have no hope. No feeling. I known I will die by myself, that I will never see my family again… I don't hate America. Actually, I admire this country's customs, their traditions, their freedom ... When I did this, I believed I was helping the Palestinian people's dream of a homeland. Now I quite believe that the organization (Abu Nidal) -- this was not their aim. I know I was used, and so were the others. I was wrong. I was at fault. I was wrong, and the victims who fell were innocent people. I was brainwashed."

The judge then invited survivors to respond to this. Most didn’t buy it, neither did the judge. Gargi Dave, who was travelling alone as a child on that flight, now a law student, felt differently. "I think he has a heart,” she said, “He's a human being just like we are. I don't think he's a monster.”

Safarini was put in solitary confinement with no chance of parole. He’s as good as dead. But by not executing him, what the American justice system managed to achieve was to give many of the victims a sense of closure. The justice system managed to make him repent and express remorse, and that means a lot in a world full of terrorists willing to die for their cause.

"I don't know if I believe him or not," British survivor Michael Thexton said, "If he could somehow be used to get the message across to other terrorists, then that would be a powerful force of good." Safarini’s remorse was that message. This is yet another example of why we need to abolish the death penalty – in the United States, as well as in India.

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