12 years later, Lockerbie trial nears a close

Yesterday, the prosecution began final arguments in its murder case against two Libyan nationals.

Tired eyes welling with tears and her handbag bulging with tissues snatched from a hotel bathroom, June Hilbert had a hard day on Tuesday.

Twelve years ago, her husband, Rod, died when the plane he was on, Pan Am Flight 103, blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people. This week, for the first time since two Libyan suspects went on trial here eight months ago for the bombing, Ms. Hilbert felt strong enough to witness the proceedings.

"Hearing other people talk about it, it becomes live in your head again, and it gets difficult," explains Hilbert, a nurse from Philadelphia. "You relive things, and I wasn't ready to do that before."

On Tuesday, Hilbert heard the lead prosecutor in the case, Alistair Campbell, begin to sum up his case against two Libyan nationals, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, accused of putting a bomb-laden suitcase aboard the Pan Am flight from London to New York in December 1988.

Reviewing the evidence presented by more than 200 witnesses in the trial, Mr. Campbell acknowledged that "this is a circumstantial case," but he said that "mathematical certainty is neither necessary nor achievable," and insisted that his team had "proved the case against both of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt."

In painstaking detail, the bewigged and bespectacled lawyer recalled the forensic evidence gathered from the debris that lay scattered over hundreds of square miles after the explosion. Experts had testified that the bomb, attached to a timer, had been hidden inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player that had been placed inside a bronze-colored Samsonite suitcase.

Campbell called on pieces of evidence ranging from fragments of a printed circuitboard found embedded in pieces of clothing, to worksheets filled out by baggage handlers for the day of Dec. 21, 1988. He argued that Mr. Megrahi and Mr. Fahima had put the fatal unaccompanied suitcase aboard a flight from Luqa Airport in Malta, where they worked, to Frankfurt and tagged it so that it would be forwarded to London and loaded onto Pan Am 103.

He also recalled testimony by the man who made the timer used in the bombing, who had originally maintained that only the Libyan government ever bought any of them, before changing his testimony later in the investigation.

Campbell told the panel of three Scottish judges hearing the case that he was dropping the charges of conspiracy and another lesser charge against the two suspects, leaving only the charge of murder - the hardest to prove.

The case is being heard under Scottish law in a specially-built courthouse in the Netherlands, under a special deal arranged with the Libyan government. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had refused to let the two men stand trial in Britain or the United States.

Lawyers for the two Libyans abruptly ended their defense on Monday after calling only three witnesses. That surprise decision sent the trial suddenly into its final stages; when the prosecution and the defense lawyers have summed up their cases, the judges are expected to adjourn for a few days to consider their verdict. They could announce their decision as early as next week.

Under Scottish law, the defense needs only to show "reasonable doubt" in the three judges' minds for the accused to walk free.

As far as June Hilbert is concerned, "whatever the verdict, it was a positive step for me to take, coming here. It's another step in the process of grieving.

"Whatever emotions you are hiding, this helps to bring them to the surface," she says. "Crying helps with healing, so I'm not afraid to bring tissues. I'm going to do a lot of healing this week."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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