A 45-year-old man has been charged with allegedly threatening to blow up a plane during a flight from Australia to Malaysia that returned to Sydney.
Police arrested Canberra resident Muhammad Arif and took him from the Airbus A330 on Monday, almost three hours after Malaysia Airlines flight MH122 returned to Sydney Airport.
He was formally charged on Tuesday.
Police allege Arif had become disruptive and claimed to have explosives on board. Charges were filed against him for making a false threat statement and disregarding cabin crew safety instructions.
The potential consequences include up to 10 years in prison and a fine exceeding 15,000 Australian dollars (US$7,300) for each charge.
Arif repeatedly refused to leave his police cell to appear before a Sydney court by video link. Magistrate Greg Grogin ruled out forcing Arif from the cell.
Defence lawyer Mostafa Daoudie told Grogin that Arif had “serious mental issues” and was “not in the right state of mind.”
Grogin postponed Arif's listing until late Tuesday to allow Daoudie time to visit the police cells and assess whether his client was “fit and able to give instructions.”
On Monday afternoon, the plane departed Sydney with 199 passengers and 12 crew members on an eight-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur.
Before takeoff, a passenger named Velutha Parambath mentioned that Arif had drawn attention by praying aloud.
“At that point, we just thought he was praying for everyone."
"People just generally had a laugh,” Parambath, who was seated five rows behind Arif, said on Tuesday.
But half an hour into the flight, Arif became louder, stood up and started pushing and shoving passengers, Parambath added.
The man implied that he had explosives in a backpack. “I don’t think he specifically said ‘bomb.’
But he was carrying his bag and he said, ‘I’ve got power in my arms,’” said Parambath, who had been travelling with his wife and three children.
Malaysia Airlines said the pilot decided to return to Sydney for safety reasons. The passengers’ concerns escalated after they landed and spent almost three hours in the plane on a tarmac.
“All we saw were fire engines surrounding us and again people reading the news saying there’s potentially a bomb on the plane,” Parambath said.
Karen Webb, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, justified the nearly three-hour delay in handcuffing Arif after the plane landed.
“We can never presume anything and you don’t know whether this person was acting alone or he actually had other support on the plane or outside the plane,” Webb said.