LARNACA, Cyprus — Seif Eldin Mustafa, the Egyptian man who grabbed the world’s attention by hijacking an EgyptAir flight and diverting it to Cyprus, has admitted his crimes to Cypriot investigators but insisted that he acted out of desperation, officials said Wednesday during his first court appearance.
Mustafa, 59, boarded EgyptAir Flight 181 Tuesday, wore a fake explosives belt, and demanded that the pilot take him to Cyprus, Turkey, or Greece, prosecutors said. When the plane landed in Larnaca, on the southern coast of Cyprus, Mustafa made various demands, including that a letter be delivered to his former wife, a Cypriot citizen, they said.
“When someone hasn’t seen his family for 24 years and wants to see his wife and children, and the Egyptian government won’t let him, what is he supposed to do?” Mustafa told the authorities, according to a statement by prosecutors.
Prosecutors requested that Mustafa remain in detention, arguing that if freed he might try to influence the testimony of his passengers and relatives or might try to flee. The judge, Maria K. Loizou of Larnaca District Court, ordered that Mustafa remain in custody for eight more days.
Egyptian authorities have formally requested the extradition of Mustafa, the country’s chief prosecutor said Wednesday.
The hijacking Tuesday raised the specter of international terrorism and seemed to be another devastating blow for Egypt, which has been criticized for lax security at its airports. The mood turned to relief as Mustafa released most of the hostages, and the episode eventually gave way to dark humor, as officials characterized Mustafa as a lovelorn, if disturbed, man who insisted on seeing his former wife. A photograph showing him standing next to a grinning passenger spread rapidly on social media, contributing to the sense of levity.
But as he appeared in court Wednesday, wearing a black jacket and looking confused and exhausted, with his hair matted and his hands shaking, nothing about the episode seemed funny to Mustafa or to the spectators. The charges prosecutors read out — including piracy and violations of counterterrorism law — carry life sentences.
Mustafa spoke only twice during the court appearance, through an Arabic-language interpreter, saying he had no objection to the detention order and no questions about the legal proceedings. After the court adjourned, he mumbled something about a telephone: A court official later said he had asked again to call his former wife.
“She doesn’t want to talk [to] him,” the court official said.
A woman who answered the door at the home of the former wife said she did not want to comment on the allegations and directed inquiries to Mustafa. Cypriot news media reported that the couple had five children, including a daughter who died in a car crash, and that Mustafa lived in Cyprus until 1994.
According to Egyptian security officials, Mustafa had escaped from prison, where he was serving time on charges of forgery and fraud during the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. A neighbor said he had heard Mustafa, a fugitive, complain of being trapped in Egypt, where he lived in an impoverished neighborhood with his widowed sister and a mentally disabled brother.
In their request for his detention, Cypriot prosecutors said that Mustafa stood up from his seat about 15 minutes after the flight left Alexandria, bound for Cairo, and showed a white belt to members of the crew, with cables that led to what he called a “remote control.”
He gave notes to the crew members to deliver to the pilots, demanding the plane be rerouted and saying if it landed anywhere in Egypt, “he would immediately blow up the plane.” He also demanded the release of 63 “dissident” women imprisoned in Egyptian jails.
Most of the passengers returned to Egypt Tuesday night on a plane sent by the Egyptian government, but some remained in Cyprus for onward travel as their final destination was not Cairo.