Lockerbie success as new model

Judges Wednesday found a Libyan guilty in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

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Wednesday's guilty verdict against a former Libyan intelligence agent accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie 12 years ago climaxed a historic trial that could set a new course for international justice.

It also bodes ill for Libya's efforts to shake off its international rogue status, as victims' relatives called on Washington to pursue further action against Tripoli.

Three Scottish judges sentenced Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to life imprisonment for murder. They found him guilty of placing a bomb on the Pan Am flight that killed all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.

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A second accused, Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, was found not guilty and set free.

"This is a very helpful verdict for us," says Georgia Nucci, who lost her son Christopher in the tragedy. "It will empower us to press forward for other answers we seek as to who ordered this, why, and who paid for it."

In the pale wood-paneled courtroom, relatives of the victims gasped as presiding Judge Lord Ranald Sutherland pronounced Mr. Megrahi guilty. Jim Swire, a leading spokesman for British relatives, fainted and was carried bodily from the courtroom. He was later pronounced fit.

Megrahi looked over his shoulder through the bullet-proof glass wall protecting the well of the court, toward his relatives in the public gallery, but otherwise showed no emotions.

The verdict surprised many observers who had thought that the circumstantial evidence was too weak to prove the prosecution's case "beyond reasonable doubt," as Scottish law requires.

In their written reasoning, however, the three judges said they had all found "a real and convincing pattern" of evidence that Megrahi had placed a bomb-laden suitcase on an airplane in Malta tagged to be transferred to Pan Am 103, flying from Heathrow to New York, on Dec. 21, 1988.

The judgment capped 85 days of hearings over almost nine months, after the most extensive international police enquiry ever mounted. The judges recommended that Megrahi serve at least 20 years in prison.

He is expected to appeal the conviction, and has two months in which to do so. "My client ... maintains his innocence," defense lawyer William Taylor told the court.

The verdict appeared to vindicate the US and British governments' insistence for nearly 10 years on bringing Megrahi and Mr. Fahima to trial for the bombing. They were charged in 1992, but Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi refused to hand the two men over to Britain or the United states, saying that they would not get a fair hearing there.

That refusal earned Libya wide ranging United Nations sanctions that were suspended only in 1999. That year, the British and US governments agreed to a trial in a neutral country under Scottish law, but without the jury that would normally hear a Scottish murder case.

This arrangement "is very much going to be a precedent," for other similar cases, such as Osama bin Laden, says Donna Arzt, a law professor at Syracuse University in New York who has followed the case closely.

"It has set an example of how to reach an accord when there is no preset procedure," she argues. "Given the nature of transnational crime, it seems very likely that this sort of trial will happen again."

The costs, however, could be dissuasive, she says. The British government spent $15 million on the specially-built courthouse on this former US Air Force base, and the trial has cost another $65 million so far.

Other legal observers believe the Lockerbie trial was unique. "I don't regard it as a model," says Robert Black, who teaches law at Edinburgh University in Scotland and who helped design the procedure for the trial. "It was a one-off to solve a specific problem."

Rather, he hopes, such cases in the future will be heard by the International Criminal Court, which will come into existence when 60 countries have ratified the 1998 treaty that set it up. "We need something more formalized, ready to swing into action," he suggests.

One proposal is that the Camp Zeist facilities be transformed into the International Criminal Court to make use of a high-security, bomb-proof courtroom and detention cells and its state-of-the-art courtroom technology.

"There's a lot to be learned about the way large complex trials can be made user-friendly for the general public," says Professor Black, pointing to the simultaneous translation, special screens on which graphic evidence was displayed, and almost instantaneous court transcripts using special software.

The trial also blazed a trail in victim support. Professor Arzt set up a special website, allowing victims' relatives to follow the case blow by blow, and the US government paid for two relatives of each victim to attend the trial for a week.

Few relatives appear to consider the verdict an end to their quest for justice. "There will not be closure till I find the truth: Who organized and who paid for" the bombing, said Betty Thomas, a British woman, after the trial ended. "These are just the jokers in the pack."

"The overwhelming fact is that we made the link to state-sponsored terrorism," says Aphrodite Tsari. "It is now up to the US government to follow its policy on state-sponsored terrorism."

The US and Britain have been warming to Libya in recent months. The North African country is still on a US State Department list of terrorist states, but officials say Libya has not been involved in any attacks for several years. London has shown signs it is keen to promote a resumption of business ties with Tripoli.

Diplomatic moves in that direction may be harder now, because of yesterday's ruling. The verdict will assist relatives who are pursuing a civil case against Libya in the US courts. "With Megrahi's conviction and the proof that he was an agent of the Libyan JSO [security services], Libya has to be held accountable for his actions," says Jim Kreindler, whose law firm is handling the suit.

Mr. Kreindler's partner and father, Lee, who, as lead counsel for the plaintiffs' committee in a suit against Pan Am in connection with the 1988 disaster won $500 million for 100 or so families, said he hopes relatives will win "parallel" damages from Libya.

Mrs. Nucci is hoping for a more modest compensation for her son's death. "Personally it would be helpful for all of us to know why [the bombing] was ordered," she says. "And very personally, I would like to have an apology."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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