Prosecutors in the Lockerbie bombing trial struggled yesterday to restore the credibility of their key witness after lawyers defending the two Libyans charged with destroying Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988 accused him repeatedly of lying so as to claim a $4 million reward.
But as Abdul Majid Giaka, a former Libyan double agent, wound up his long-awaited testimony, he had offered only weak and faltering explanations of apparent inconsistencies in his evidence tying the two defendants to the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died.
Mr. Giaka's stumbling performance under cross examination could be crucial to the outcome of the trial. "If the vigorous cross examination of Giaka ... results in what is clearly important evidence being discounted by the judges ... this will be detrimental to the prosecution case," says Clare Connelly, a Scottish legal expert attending the trial.
Libya and Scottish law
The case is being heard under Scottish law in the Netherlands under an arrangement that persuaded Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi to turn over Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah for trial, after enduring eight years of international sanctions.
But victims' relatives following the case said they were not discouraged. "It was a little unsettling" to hear such an important witness fumble, acknowledges Paul Zwynenburg, whose brother was killed in the bombing. "But looking at the big picture, this is one blip on the radar screen," he says.
Giaka, who has been hiding in the United States under the witness-protection program for the past nine years, was shielded from public view as he testified. White blinds were pulled over the bulletproof glass window that separates the court from the public gallery, and the TV monitors relaying court proceedings showed only a mosaic of black, brown, and beige squares as he spoke. His voice was electronically distorted into an unidentifiable growl.
The Giaka connection
Giaka, who worked with the two defendants at the Libyan Airlines office at Malta Airport, and who became a CIA informant four months before the bombing, was expected to be the only witness able to directly link the two men to the attack. He said he had seen Mr. Megrahi arrive at Luqa Airport from Tripoli days before the Pan Am flight blew up, and take a brown Samsonite-like suitcase from the baggage carousel. Investigators believe a bomb hidden in a tape recorder within such a suitcase blew up the Pan Am plane.
Giaka also told the court that he had been asked in 1986 by another LIbyan intelligence agent to prepare a study on the feasibility of slipping an unaccompanied suitcase onto a British airplane at Malta's airport. The prosecution alleges that Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah placed the bomb on a plane from Malta bound for Frankfurt, where it was transferred onto the Pan Am flight.
Giaka further said that Fhimah had showed him 22 pounds of "yellow material" he said were explosives that the accused kept locked in his desk. But defense lawyers tore into this evidence in a rhetorical tirade "that could teach Johnnie Cochran a few tricks," as Kathleen Flynn, whose son died in the bombing, says ruefully.
They quoted extensively from CIA cables sent by Giaka's handlers between 1988 and 1991, which suggested that by the end of the Libyan's time as an informant they had lost patience with him and the low level of his information. Giaka was "shattered," and "certainly milking any of his contacts, including us, for whatever he can get," a CIA cable from 1991 read.
By that time, the defense argued, Giaka was so desperate to get to the US he was ready to say anything to the FBI agents investigating the Lockerbie bombing. Why, wondered Richard Keen, who is defending Fhimah, did the CIA have no record of the suitcase incident, which Giaka revealed only to the FBI three years after the bombing?
"I don't have any explanation for that," Giaka said yesterday. "The incident did take place, and I told the investigator about it. If the CIA neglected to mention it, I am not responsible."
Mr. Keen also referred to a CIA cable that reported Giaka telling his handler he had never been asked to study the feasibility of putting a bomb on a plane from Malta. This directly contradicted the evidence he gave earlier in the week.
"We are talking about something that is difficult to remember," Giaka responded. He added that he had not told his CIA contact about the 1986 report he now claims to have prepared because he was afraid leaks might reveal to Libyan intelligence that he had talked.
Giaka's failure to respond confidently is not in itself fatal to the prosecution case, says Ms. Connelly. "Trying to assess a piece of evidence in isolation would be misjudged," she cautions.
But Keen was biting in his insistence that the Libyan is a fantasist. "In America, have you had a chance to dip into American literature, especially a short story writer called James Thurber?" he asked. "Have you encountered someone called Mitty, first name Walter?"
Once again, Giaka was at a loss. "I do not recall" he said.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society