Lockerbie trial: last act of old era

As the second week of the trial of two Libyan suspects begins, Tripoli plays oil-conference host.

The long-awaited trial of two Libyans accused of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, marks the end of a long campaign for justice among the families of the 270 people killed. But it could also mark the beginning of a new era of normal relations between Libya and the West, as the two sides come to terms with the past.

"This is the final airing of dirty laundry between the Arab world and the West," says Ismael Zayer, who is covering the trial as political editor of Al Hayat, a London-based Arab newspaper. "This should put a period at the end of some very unpleasant confrontations involving Israel, Iran, Iraq, Libya, even going back to Lebanon."

The trial, before a panel of three Scottish judges, began last Wednesday in a makeshift court built on a former US airbase, Camp Zeist, in the Netherlands. The unlikely format and venue were set after years of protracted negotiations among American, British, and Libyan officials.

United Nations sanctions against Libya, in place since March 1992, were lifted last year after Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima were handed over to Dutch authorities.

Since the extradition, the change in Libya's international status is evident. Libyan oil exports to Britain have topped $150 million since sanctions were lifted, while British exports of heavy machinery, power generators, chemicals, and automobiles to Libya have topped that amount.

This week, Libya's National Oil Corporation is hosting a conference in the capital, Tripoli, with foreign oil and gas companies to explore new business opportunities. Some 50 firms from the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia have been invited to take part.

At the trial, meanwhile, the two reputed Libyan intelligence agents stand accused of planting the bomb that brought down the Pan Am flight on Dec. 21, 1988, killing all 259 people on board the aircraft and 11 more on the ground. If found guilty of murder, they face life in a Scottish prison.

During the first four days of proceedings, the court heard harrowing testimony from air-traffic controllers, Lockerbie residents who witnessed the crash, and local investigators who sifted through the wreckage.

Kevin Anderson, a builder, described finding the plane's cockpit in a field 100 yards from his house. "It was unreal to see," he said. "We looked inside and saw two people - one was the captain. There were no signs of life. No one was alive."

The detailed testimony proved difficult for many of the families who attended the opening hearings, some of whom wept through the grim descriptions of the crash. The defendants, whose families also attended the trail, remained largely impassive.

Casting doubt on investigation

The case for the defense began to take shape on Friday, when Scottish attorneys acting for Mr. al-Megrahi and Mr. Khalifa Fahima asked local police officers about the presence of American intelligence agents at the scene of the crash.

Alexander McClain, a Scottish investigator, said that CIA agents were "there quite quickly after the crash" and helped collect evidence. Foreign agents would not usually be allowed to participate in an investigation, he said, and he had never experienced that before.

Yesterday, Scottish police officer Douglas Roxburgh testified about evidence-tracking procedures for the tens of thousands of items recovered from the crash site. The policeman described extra-tight security measures as his staff carried out a "very detailed examination of every piece that came in, from handkerchiefs to socks."

During cross-examination, defense lawyer Richard Keen raised concerns that agencies other than police were dealing with items and that some property was removed by those agencies.

Gordon Ferrie, a Scottish detective, was asked about early police suspicion that the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a terrorist known by the alias Marwan Kreeshat, had been responsible for the blast. The defense is expected to claim that Palestinian terrorists, not Libyans, carried out the attack.

Defense lawyers need only raise a valid doubt of their clients' responsibility to obtain a "not proven" verdict - a uniquely Scottish ruling that would allow the accused to go free without exonerating them.

Whatever legal wrangling lies ahead in the trial, which could last a year, the proceedings have been remarkably civilized so far. The families of the defendants expressed satisfaction with the trial and confidence that the two men would be acquitted. "We respect this court and the judges," says Othma Saeid, Al Megrahi's brother-in-law, during a break in the hearings. "We trust our counsel, otherwise we would not have chosen them, and we know these men are innocent."

Signs of compromise

The family expressed satisfaction that the accused are being well-treated.As part of the extradition agreement, they are being held in a specially constructed wing of the compound and are allowed access to recreational facilities, a Muslim chef, and regular family visits.

All of which, Arab newspaper editor Zayer insists, signals a spirit of compromise among British, American, and Libyan officials and a change of heart from the Libyan leadership.

"There was a time when [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi would proudly display 3,000 tanks - the problem was, there was no one to drive them," says Zayer. "Now he is getting old and [has] given up his revolutionary aspirations. Now he is trying to build the state."

With economic sanctions against Libya lifted, Zayer expects the future to bring normalization of relations between the US and Libya and for Mr. Qaddafi's international pariah status to slowly lift - a view that is not shared by the families of the Pan Am victims.

Victims' families blame Qaddafi

"Qaddafi gave the order for this attack," says Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tom was killed in the bombing. "If these two men are found guilty, that will only intensify pressure on Libya. If they are found guilty, it proves that Libya was involved in state-sponsored terrorism and there will be repercussions from that."

Some victims' relatives, however, are questioning whether the trial will prove anything. According to a report yesterday in the Boston Globe, some relatives claim Qaddafi was promised immunity from prosecution by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with the tacit approval of the US and British governments, as part of the deal to turn over the bombing suspects. The pledge reportedly came in a letter to Qaddafi from Mr. Annan.

The UN chief and both governments reportedly deny there was any deal to limit the investigation.

*Material from the wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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