Aneesh Bhanot, spokesperson for the Indian victims on board Pan Am Flight No. 73, is the brother of Neerja Bhanot, the flight purser on the flight who was possibly the only Indian to be honoured by the governments of India, Pakistan and the United States.
What prompted you to approach the Punjab & Haryana High Court in 2014, almost 28 years after the Pan Am Flight 73 was stormed ?
The origins of going to the Punjab & Haryana High Court was in events which happened in 2008— just about 6 years ago. It was in 2008 that America discriminated against Indians and abandoned us, which was the reason to go to court for justice.
In 2008, Libya gave 1.5 billion dollars to USA to compensate victims of various terrorism incidents sponsored by it. There were two terrorist incidents involving Pan Am planes— in 1988 (Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie) and 1986 (Pan Am Flight 73, Karachi). While USA paid passengers of ALL nationalities in PA103, it decided to compensate ONLY the around 40 American passengers on the plane in case of PA73 and told the other 300 plus passengers (a large part of whom were Indians) to ‘go to their own governments and ask them to talk to Libya.’
The Ministry of Civil Aviation, Govt. of India investigated the case and on September 5, 2014 stated that the stand taken by USA “is totally unjustified and smacks of rank discrimination...To expect Govt. of India to negotiate for Indian passengers with Government of Libya in such cases is unreasonable and unjustified as the flight involved was a US carrier."
Is there any evidence to suggest that the seven Indian passengers killed in Pan Am 103 were compensated ?
Yes, indeed, in the case of PA103 victims of ALL nationalities were compensated. Here are the facts: There were totally 270 victims: 243 passengers (178 American), 16 crew (11 American) and 11 persons on the ground at Lockerbie. All, except 2 families were compensated. The 2 who did not choose to join a Settlement were the Cohens from New Jersey (who refused the money but wanted Gaddafi thrown in prison) and a woman from Florida, who did a private law suit and settlement with Libya for her husband’s death.
Is that the only ground on the basis of which you accuse the US of discriminating against Indians ?
Not at all. Our case of discrimination against Indians is based on facts of the incident itself.
All the passengers on Pan Am 73 were on an American flagship plane and hence, technically, on American soil. The attack was against America and American assets and was sponsored by Libya in retaliation for US warplanes bombing Tripoli a few months prior to the hijack. We Indians were unwittingly caught in this mayhem for no fault of our country or us.
The lives of most of the American passengers on board were saved by the Indian cabin crew by hiding their passports from the hijackers who wanted to segregate the Americans and probably kill them like they did a passenger who identified himself as an American when the hijack started.
When the bullets were flying in the aircraft and the hand grenades were exploding, there was no question of which nationality a person was when the bullets and shrapnel hit them. Then why the discrimination of nationality when Libya gave the money to compensate the victims of various terrorism incidents which had been sponsored by it?
Since you claim that the US disbursed the monetary compensation provided by Libya to the victims of both Pan Am 73 and Pan Am 103, there never was any liability on the US taxpayer. Why then would the US deny compensation to just 20 people killed in Karachi compared to 270 killed over Lockerbie ?
I fully agree with you. This is a question which defies all logic and reasonable explanation.
When USA is asked this question, their standard reply is that they cannot espouse the case of other nationalities. On Lockerbie (PA103) their response is that there was a ‘settlement’ between the victims and Libya and they simply followed that settlement and hence compensated victims of all nationalities. However, this is not true as the ‘settlement’ had long expired before 2008 and hence there was NO legal ‘settlement ‘in place when USA compensated the Lockerbie victims in 2008 from the Libyan money. Yet, USA compensated them. Defies all logic.
Then again, in the Khobragade case, Devyani was an Indian national and so was Sangeeta Richard, yet the USA intervened saying that Sangeeta was on American soil and hence they could espouse her case even though she was not an US citizen. However, even the PA73 victims were on American soil (an American plane) when the horrific hijack happened. Again, defies all logic on how USA can treat this case differently.
Or, let’s take a look at 9/11. Even in this case, victims of all nationalities who perished in the heinous attacks were compensated by the Americans because they were on American soil and the attack was against America. How is PA73 different? Defies all logic again.
What has been the attitude of the Indian authorities ? What have they advised ?
The Indian authorities have been very responsive and helpful and have been advising me regularly on the steps to be taken to ensure that all Indians get justice. In fact, going to Court was on the sound advice of a senior official of the External Affairs Ministry. The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Union Home Ministry have been equally helpful. Most of the officers in these ministries are appalled at the way we Indians have been treated.
Are you hopeful of getting an audience with President Obama ?
I sent a request on December 19 by email to the US Embassy in New Delhi for this and also requested the External Affairs Ministry for help. A reminder to the American Embassy has been sent on January 4. And, yes, I do think and hope that we will get an audience with President Obama. After all, all that we want to do is present our case to him.
I must add that whenever we talk to any American citizen on the facts of our case—how Indians saved the lives of the Americans, how the hijack was against America, how the Indians were butchered in the final hour and how we were discriminated against from the Libyan compensation money— they get horrified and embarrassed at how their country has responded and behaved so far. Generally, Americans are fair-minded people who understand and appreciate the value of human life. President Obama is well-known to have the principles and values of a true American.
It seems the US honoured your sister's bravery only in 2005-06. You had flown to the US to receive the awards. What explains the delay ?
The Pan Am 73 hijack really came into focus in the USA only in 2004 when the trial and sentencing of the lead hijacker, Safirani, took place in Washington. (He had been caught by the FBI after he was released by Pakistan in 2002 after serving a life sentence there). When the details of the case came out and the US citizens heard the testimony of a large number of victims, predominantly Indian, who had come for the sentencing, there were tremendous emotional scenes seen in the Courthouse.
It was the US Department of Justice which then moved ahead to recognize the heroism and humanity shown by Neerja and others. In 2005, the Washington DC District Attorney presented awards to Neerja and all the Pan Am cabin crew (all Indians) and some passengers for their ‘Fight for Justice’. The next year, in 2006, one of America’s highest honours ‘The Special Courage Award’ was given by the US Department of Justice to Neerja and the other cabin crew members. Both these functions were held in Washington DC and I attended both of them on behalf of Neerja.
What else do you think the Indian Government should do?
The fact of the matter is that USA has discriminated against Indians and abandoned us in the Pan Am airline case. Yet, even today, there are American airlines (Delta, American Airlines, United, US Air etc.) operating from/through India.
We Indians are spending our hard earned money on buying tickets in India on these airlines to travel to USA, UK, Europe, Canada etc. We are adding to their profits. But, God forbid, if a similar incident happens today, would these airlines discriminate against us and abandon us again?
We feel that the Indian Government should ask these airlines to clarify what their processes and procedures are today, and should take a re-look at their licenses if no satisfactory reply is forthcoming from them. This would be in the interest of all Indians and should be done immediately.
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