Posted on July 20, 2004

Afghan Hijackers Live Life of Luxury

Olga Craig and Hamida Ghafour, Telegraph (UK), Jul. 18

The Afghan pilot forced to fly a hijacked aircraft from Kabul to London has condemned a British court’s decision to allow the hijackers to live in luxury in England.

The Afghan pilot forced to fly a hijacked aircraft from Kabul to London yesterday angrily condemned a British court’s decision to allow the hijackers to live in luxury in England while he lives in poverty and fear in Afghanistan.

Medhi Syedi, who was threatened with death unless he flew to Stansted airport and who was tortured by the Taliban on his return to Afghanistan, said that the court’s decision last week was “disgraceful”.

The immigration court ruled that the nine hijackers — who threatened to shoot all 187 passengers on the Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 in February 2000 — could stay in Britain “on human rights grounds” because it would be unsafe for them to return to Afghanistan.

The decision gave the hijackers, whose plea for asylum had been rejected, the right to continue living indefinitely with their extended families in rent-free homes in west London and claiming benefits, as they have for the past four years. The case is estimated to have cost the British taxpayer £37 million so far.

Mr Syedi, by contrast, lives with his family in a house in Kabul that has no electricity or running water and is guarded by armed militia at his own expense. He told The Sunday Telegraph: “It seems human rights are only enforced for hijackers. All of the hijackers should be sent back here. They are not worthy to stay in the United Kingdom.

“The British Government is supporting these hijackers. Where is the justice in that? These men say they are afraid to return because of the Taliban. I say they were Taliban themselves. Otherwise how would they have been able to get their ammunition and explosives on to the plane?”

Mr Syedi, 58, recalled how one of the hijackers, Taimur Shah, pointed an AK47 at him and told him that he would shoot him if he did not alter his course and land at Stansted airport in Essex.

Mr Syedi, who still works as a pilot for Ariana, was astounded at the £37 million cost of the case. “It is outrageous, these men are criminals,” he said. “There are three million starving people in this country who could have benefited from a sum like that.”

Unlike the hijackers, who brought their extended families on board the aircraft, Mr Syedi did not seek asylum in Britain as his wife and children were in Kabul. “For four days we were on that aircraft, with no food. Then, when I returned to Kabul the Taliban threw me in jail and beat me every day with cables.

“They seized both my houses — together they were worth $70,000 [£37,000]. In all they made me pay $200,000 [£107,000] to get out of jail.”

Mr Syedi, a pilot for 40 years, still has aching legs from the beatings and his hands and back are criss-crossed with livid red scars. “The nerves in my legs have been permanently damaged,” he explained. “The pain — and the memories of the hijacking — keep me awake at night.”

He still needs medical treatment for his injuries but there is a severe shortage of experienced doctors and medicines in Kabul.

Two years ago he applied to the British embassy in Pakistan for a visa to travel to England for surgery but was turned down. He said: “I called them every day for weeks and eventually a man said to me, ‘Stop calling, no one here wants to talk to you’.

“I helped save the lives of those passengers yet no one even thanked me. The British would not even help me to come to England for medical treatment yet they lavish £37 million on the nine terrorists who hijacked an aircraft and threatened to kill all on board. Is that justice?

“My life here is difficult and it is dangerous. Yet these men are given a luxurious life. There is, I have decided, no justice in Britain.”

The nine hijackers captured the aircraft as it stood on Kabul runway in February 2000.

Armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades and knives, they said that they had been terrorised by the Taliban and wanted to seek asylum in Britain. They held the pilot and passengers hostage for four days at Stansted, at one stage holding guns to the passengers’ heads and threatening to kill them.

All nine eventually surrendered to SAS marksmen and were jailed for five years in January 2002 for hijacking, possessing guns and explosives, and false imprisonment.

Fifteen months later, however, the Court of Appeal ruled that their convictions were unsafe because of an error of law in the judge’s summing up, and all were released. The Home Office moved to have them deported, but last Tuesday the Immigration Appellate Authority decreed that they could stay.

The Home Office has indicated that it will appeal against the decision — which will further increase the cost to the taxpayer.

The bill for the hijack includes £2.5 million for the four-day police operation, £135,000 for the SAS marksmen, £18,000 for the £200-a-night rooms and food for the hijack victims in an airport hotel, £100,000 for hotel costs during the initial two-month inquiry, £300,000 for the initial immigration inquiry into asylum applications, £30 million for two Old Bailey trials, including 27 barristers and seven translators, £1 million for appeals against conviction, £120,000 for housing, benefits and education for the nine hijackers and £2.5 million for asylum appeals.

Of the people on the aircraft, 89 returned voluntarily to Afghanistan and 22, including 13 dependants, have been granted asylum. A further 25 are awaiting the outcome of appeals. The Government, including Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, had pledged to send all those involved back.

In the past few weeks the hijackers and their families have moved to secret addresses in west London. Neighbours at their former homes, however, said that the families had a succession of visitors and did not stint on entertaining.

“Because they are accustomed to warmer climes they would keep the central heating on full, even during the summer,” one said. “They had expensive music and entertainment systems.

“They loved videos and DVDs. Their favourite was Potato Head Kids, an animated film. They loved it, you could hear it blaring out of the house at all hours of the day and night.”

Another said that the families were very particular about their food, buying only organic produce. “They must have spent a fortune on groceries,” she said. “Everything was organic and they would sometimes send taxis to collect it.”