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Lockerbie success as new model

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

By Peter Ford Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2001


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.

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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.

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."