Lockerbie Trial Set To Open
CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands (AP) _ For more than 11 years, investigators pursued a trail of evidence across Europe and the Mediterranean to the two Libyan intelligence agents accused of blowing Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.
As the trial in the world’s worst airliner bombing opens today at a Scottish court in the Netherlands, prosecutors dismissed reports of weaknesses in the case and insisted they are ready with sufficient proof to convict the men.
The proceedings, expected to last about a year, follow the largest international murder probe on record, with investigators interviewing 15,000 witnesses in more than 20 countries and sifting through 180,000 pieces of evidence since the 1988 blast.
All 259 passengers and crew members _ including 189 Americans heading home _ were killed along with 11 residents of Lockerbie some 38 minutes after the New York-bound jumbo jet took off from London’s Heathrow airport at 6:25 p.m. on that Dec. 21.
The trial of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah is being held at Camp Zeist, an old U.S. air base declared Scottish sovereign territory for the duration of the trial. The venue was chosen in a U.N.-brokered compromise following years of sanctions aimed at forcing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to hand over the suspects, who were indicted in November 1991.
More than 30 American victims’ relatives were getting front-row seats in the public gallery, separated from the court by bulletproof glass. Many other family members could watch via closed-circuit television linkups to sites in Washington, New York, London and Dumfries, Scotland.
For the relatives, the long-awaited start of the trial elicited mixed emotions. It marked a milestone in their crusade for justice for the deaths of their loved ones. But it also raised doubts whether those truly responsible for the crime will be punished.
``I feel a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment that we pursued it long enough and hard enough,″ said Maddy Shapiro, of Stamford, Conn., whose daughter Amy was on Flight 103.
Nevertheless, she expressed concern that even if the men are found guilty, ``whatever higher-ups gave the orders ... won’t be pursued.″
``The people who are really responsible are who we are after,″ said Kathleen Flynn of Montville, N.J., whose son, John Patrick Flynn, was among the victims.
Relatives believe the bombing plot involved senior figures in the Libyan government as well as other terrorist organizations.
They have also voiced worry over reports that the prosecution case suffered setbacks as a result of contradictory witness statements and inconsistencies in the evidence against the Libyans.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants planted the suitcase rigged with a plastic explosive onto a flight from the Mediterranean island of Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred as unaccompanied luggage onto a feeder flight connecting with Pan Am 103 at Heathrow.
According to Scottish legal experts, the prosecution has no eyewitness who can establish incontrovertibly that the defendants planted a suitcase bomb aboard the doomed airliner. The rigorous standards of proof in Scottish law require that every incriminating fact be backed up by more than one source.
The experts note, however, that prosecutors have kept their cards close to their chest and may well have enough sources to link the Libyans to the crime.
``It’s awfully easy to debunk evidence before a trial,″ said John Grant of Glasgow University Law School. ``Let’s just hear what the prosecution’s case is. There may be some surprises for the skeptics and the cynics.″
Prosecutors have indicated they will call up to 1,000 witnesses _ including investigators, eyewitnesses, and CIA and other covert agents _ to testify. In the opening weeks, the witnesses will include aviation experts who will discuss the explosion of the jetliner as well as police and eyewitnesses on the crash scene.
If convicted of murder, al-Megrahi and Fhimah face a mandatory life sentence in a Scottish prison.
However, another Glasgow University legal expert, Jim Murdoch, noted that under Scottish law, ``Life doesn’t have to mean life. It’s entirely possible that if these men are convicted, within 10 or 15 years they will be released.″
On the Net:
Scottish Executive: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/
Lockerbie Trial Briefing, Glasgow University Law School: http://www.law.gla.ac.uk/lockerbie/index.cfm
Lockerbie investigation by British Air Accidents Investigation Branch: http://www.open.gov.uk/aaib/n739pa.htm