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Neerja’s killer may get 160 years in prison
Chandigarh girl was killed in 1986 hijack bid at Karachi airport
Maneesh Chhibber
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, May 8
It has been a long wait for justice for the family of Chandigarh-born Neerja Bhanot, a senior flight purser with Pan Am, who was killed by terrorists during a hijacking bid in 1986. It was in this city that she did her schooling from Sacred Heart Convent School, and it was here that she was cremated.

But finally her family has reason to be hopeful. On May 12, a US court will decide the quantum of punishment to the leader of the hijackers' team, Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini, who was arrested by the FBI while attempting to flee from Pakistan. Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja's brother, has already left for the USA on the request of the US Government to witness the final days of trial.

In the presence of family members of some of the victims, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Washington DC will announce the sentence. The sentence could be a total of 160 years.

However, Neerja's parents, Harish and Rama, have lost interest in the proceedings. “Will she come back? It has been so long that justice has lost its meaning for us,” they told The Tribune.

A heroine back home, young Neerja gave up her life to save the lives of passengers aboard the ill-fated flight. She was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra. She was then the youngest winner of this award. She was just two days short of her 23rd birthday when she was killed. Incidentally, popularly known as Charmis girl, she modelled for almost six dozen brands. Her last assignment for a modelling company ended just two days before she died.

On September 5, 1986, her father was attending a press conference in Mumbai — he was a journalist with a national daily — when the news came that the flight on which Neerja was travelling had been hijacked. “My first response was: she will get herself killed. You see, Neerja was not the kind of person to tolerate injustice or run away from danger,” Mr Bhanot reminisces.

His words came to be true. When five terrorists stormed the Pan Am Flight-73 at Karachi airport and took control of the aircraft, the first act that Neerja did was to shout “hijack”, enabling the pilots and some other crew members to escape from the aircraft so that the plane could not be forcibly flown.

In an attempt to segregate the Indian and US passengers, the hijackers asked Neerja to hand over the passports of US passengers. Neerja hid the passports. Alert even in a time of crisis, Neerja helped passengers to escape by opening the emergency door after the lights went out.

As eyewitnesses said despite being in a position to escape before anyone else, she put other people's lives before her. She was gunned down while trying to save three children from the bullets.

“We knew she would never leave until the last passenger had been evacuated safely. Dying in the line of duty was her destiny. But we are proud that she did what was expected of her,” Mrs Bhanot remembers.

Apart from Neerja, 19 other persons were killed, while over 100 sustained injuries. The plane was under the control of the hijackers for over 17 hours. Had Neerja not shown great courage, the toll could have been much higher.

In 1988, five hijackers were convicted by a Pakistani court and sentenced for varying periods. After his release from jail, the leader of the group tried to escape to Syria, but was caught and brought to Washington DC for trial.

On October 1, 2001, Safarini was produced in court where he pleaded not guilty to the charges. On August 28, 2002, a grand jury found him and his four accomplices guilty on 95 counts and proposed that they be tried. Safarini again pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution sought death penalty for him. But the court ruled out death penalty in the case. On December 16, 2003, Safarini pleaded guilty to all 95 counts and prosecution dropped the request for death penalty.

However, his lawyers agreed that he could be sentenced to a total of 160 years (three life sentences plus 25 years). Safarini will be denied parole during this time. Incidentally, the other four accused are still in a Pakistani jail.

Talking about the impending judgement, Mr Bhanot says, “I am not happy. All the hijackers should be given the death penalty. I am not saying this because I lost my daughter. I am saying this because any person who kills another human being without any provocation or reason does not deserve to live. But, then justice is not in our hands.”

After the daughter's death, the Bhanot family put the insurance money of Neerja in a trust — Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust — in which Pan Am also contributed an equal amount. Every year, the trust honours airline crew that acts beyond the call of duty and one Indian woman who has shown exemplary courage.

“We live with her memory. It is our honour that we are known as Neerja Bhanot's parents,” they say with a pinch of pride, but eyes moist at the thought of their missing daughter.

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