Unanswered questions? What unanswered questions?

I thought we had scraped the bottom of the absurdity barrel decades ago. Yet there always somehow seems to be a lower level to sink to...

If Jason Azzopardi were to present any form of defence other than the ‘fake hijack’ scenario, it would be a blatant contradiction of his own party’s entire position
If Jason Azzopardi were to present any form of defence other than the ‘fake hijack’ scenario, it would be a blatant contradiction of his own party’s entire position

Who would have ever guessed? For once, I find myself almost agreeing with something Jason Azzopardi said. 

The man who hopes to become Malta’s next justice minister declared this week that “there are 1,001 questions that still need to be answered” about the Al Afriqiya hijack. I’m not sure why he felt the need to add an extra thousand to the number of unanswered questions; but Azzopardi is certainly right that there is at least one. And he is ideally positioned to answer it, too.

What, exactly, is Jason Azzoapardi’s own connection with this case? So far, nobody seems to have any clear idea. Starting with Azzopardi himself, who told this newspaper that: “he agreed to assist Patrick Valentino – the lawyer of the hijacker Ali Ahmed Saleh – until Valentino returns from his Christmas holidays abroad.”

Strangely, however, the lawyer assisting Saleh in court turned out to be not Jason Azzopardi at all... but a certain Dr Julian Farrugia, who even declared that: “lawyer and PN shadow minister Jason Azzopardi has nothing to do with the case, and that he [Dr Farrugia] was representing Mr Saleh on behalf of the accused’s lawyer Patrick Valentino.”

How’s that for an unanswered question? And a rather important one, too... given that Azzopardi has publicly stated his suspicion that this hijack might have actually been stage-managed by the Maltese government, for reasons which have never been made clear. 

If those are indeed his (and his party’s) views in the matter... what sort of defence would he have put up for the hijacker, anyway? For consistency’s sake, he would have to make those arguments – or rather, accusations – in open court. He would have to build his client’s entire case around the hypothesis that Saleh was the victim of a hoax masterminded by the prime minister... who, for no apparent reason whatsoever (certainly none that has been given by Azzopardi), decided to organise a fake ‘hijack’ in violation of both Maltese and Libyan law. And this version would naturally have to be corroborated by his own client, and fully supported by solid evidence.

If Azzopardi were to present any form of defence other than the ‘fake hijack’ scenario, it would be a blatant contradiction of his own party’s entire position. So I think the answer to my earlier question is right there, staring us in the face. My guess is that Azzopardi realised – or was made to realise – that by shooting his mouth off with such absurd and ridiculous conspiracy theories, he had set a trap both for himself and for the PN. I think he pulled out of the defence team because he belatedly understood how utterly implausible his previous statements had all along been... how laughable they would appear if presented as ‘evidence’ in court... and how serious the damage to his own professional reputation as a consequence. And quietly, without a fuss, the shadow minister tiptoed back into the shadows whence he came.

Of course, I could be wrong... but seeing as how everyone else is simply substituting facts with their own wild fantasies and unfettered speculation... why not go with the flow? Why not just spout the first nonsensical notion that springs to mind, and JFK’s your uncle...?

In any case, it is painfully clear that Azzopardi – and all the others who have peddled the same bogus theory, at a cost to their own credibility – had a different set of ‘1001 questions’ in mind. By now he will surely have noticed that all of these questions are being laid to rest, one by one, in the course of the trial. 

In the process, it also becomes visible just how outrageous the many assumptions underpinning this conspiracy really are. Starting with:

Assumption number one: ‘The passengers were calm and untroubled as they disembarked. They were joking, smiling and laughing. All proof that the hijack scenario had been concocted.’

This is the cue for Afriqiyah Airways representative, Shadli Abbussen, to take the witness stand. He testifies that “many passengers thought that they had been diverted to Malta due to bad weather, and many only got to know that they had been hijacked after the plane had landed.”

This also means that the passengers had no reason to be anything but unruffled when they stepped onto the runway. By the time they understood what was happening, the situation had already been wrapped up. It also fully explains another supposed piece of the ‘puzzle’. Ivan Grech Mintoff, of the Patrjotti Maltin (my, what interesting bedfellows politics makes these days) took me to task for failing to be suckered by a video he claimed was taken on board the flight BEFORE landing. 

Unlike another video that was quickly exposed as a fake, there is no reason that I can see to doubt the authenticity of this footage. But now that we know that those passengers were unaware of the hijack... what does it actually prove?

Nothing at all. It merely illustrates how people who have no idea they’re being held hostage might actually behave: nothing more, nothing less. 

Assumption number two: ‘It can’t have been a real hijack, because the hijackers made no demands.’

Erm... excuse me, but what definition of ‘hijack’ are we using here, exactly? The word simply means to commandeer an aeroplane using force (or the threat thereof). Yes, admittedly most times the motive for this kind of action would entail ‘demands’ of some kind. But that is by no means a prerequisite.

In this case, the hijackers’ actual motives have all along been public knowledge. They wanted to make a political statement. They wanted to fly Gaddafi’s green flag somewhere where it would be filmed, and the footage broadcast in all countries of the world. This was the hijackers’ stated intention, and I for one fail to see how it can be described as ‘unreached’. They certainly got what they wanted, and plenty of it. What more, then, could they possibly have asked for?

But like I said: the existence or otherwise of ‘demands’ is in itself meaningless. Let’s take a look at a few of the more famous examples. You might remember a certain incident that took place back in September 2001, when four American passenger planes were hijacked shortly after take-off from New York’s airport. Two of them were flown headlong into the Twin Towers, killing more than 3,000 people. A third crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth was (by most accounts) shot down on its way to the White House.

I don’t recall the hijackers making any demands on that occasion, either. Does this mean the 9/11 hijacks were not really ‘hijacks’ at all? 

Certainly a lot of people around the world believe there was something fishy about the entire incident: but not even the loopiest of 9/11 conspiracy theories would question the authenticity of the hijacks themselves. It might not have been the conventional form we’re more used to – where passengers are held hostage in exchange for clear demands – but that in itself tells us more about our preconceived notions, than about what the word actually means.

Meanwhile, if that comparison is too far-fetched for your liking – it is for mine, too – then how about the hijacker who diverted an Egypt Air plane to Cyprus last March? This is from a BBC report at the time: ‘EgyptAir Flight MS181 was taken over by a passenger claiming to be wearing a suicide explosive belt. Airline officials later said they had been told by Cypriot authorities that the belt was fake. The hijacker’s motives remain unclear....”

Sounds awfully familiar already, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more. It later transpired that the motive behind the hijack was (of all things)... ‘love’. The man, it seems, wanted to impress his estranged wife who had moved to Cyprus after dumping him. He was also described as ‘mentally unstable’ and – rather unkindly, it must be said – ridiculed all over the internet for months.

But still: a hijack it remained. The man was duly arrested and charged with the crime of hijacking... even though, like the Libyan hijackers arrested in Malta last week, he never made any formal demands. The only questions raised by the incident concerned the levels of security at Alexandria’s airport. Nobody even remotely suggested that the incident must have been ‘staged’... because it didn’t fit in with their own conception of what a hijack should actually look like.

Interestingly enough, it also turns out that the Cyprus example is by no means unique. The Washington Post ran a story detailing an entire history of hijacks prompted by broken hearts. Here are a couple of examples:

“In 1961, a drunken oil worker failed in an attempt to commandeer a flight to see his estranged wife in Arkansas... he was subdued by several passengers before the flight could leave the Chicago airport.”

And: “In 1971, Richard Obergfell, a former Navy aviation mechanic, hijacked a flight en route from New York to Chicago in an attempt to reach a pen pal in Italy, a woman with whom he had fallen in love...”

This second story, however, had a somewhat unhappier ending for the love-stricken hijacker. Obergfell was shot dead by a sniper on the JFK airport runway. I guess the FBI didn’t buy into the popular ‘hoax hijack’ hypothesis, either.  They certainly didn’t wait for any ‘demands’ to be made, to be able to conclude that what was happening before their eyes was both a hijack, and very real.

But here in Malta, of course, we are special. Our hijacks have to be different from everybody else’s. And if they’re not ‘special’ enough... well, since when has that ever been a problem? We’ll just embellish them with a little home-grown paranoia and delusion, like we do with everything else.

Honestly, though: I thought we had scraped the bottom of the absurdity barrel decades ago. Yet there always somehow seems to be a lower level to sink to...

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