Berlin disco terror trial nears end

This month, a verdict is expected in the 15-year-old case of the La Belle disco bombing.


Fifteen years after one of the worst terrorist attacks targeting US citizens in Europe, the deadly blast still reverberates.

This month, following a four-year-long trial, a court here is expected to reach a verdict in the case against five defendants charged with the bombing of a West Berlin dance hall frequented by American servicemen.

In April 1986, only days after the attack killed three persons and injured more than 200 at the La Belle disco, President Ronald Reagan meted out punishment, ordering retaliatory airstrikes against Libya, which the US blamed for the attack.

Building a legal case and tracking down the suspects has taken a great deal longer. But time was not an enemy: The historic fall of the Berlin Wall opened the path to new, vital clues.

Detlev Mehlis, the state prosecutor who has been on the La Belle case from the start, says the experience has shown him that, when tracking terrorists, "one good agent is more important than a spy satellite." He also notes: "Fighting terror is not a thing of five or 10 years. Maybe we should think in dimensions of 15 to 20 years."

The La Belle case may have little more to teach investigators today, says Munich terrorism expert Patrick Moreau, for terror has entered a new era.

In the 1980s, the foe was state-sponsored terrorism, but after the collapse of the USSR, countries such as Libya or Syria could no longer afford to sponsor terrorism, Dr. Moreau says, because they lost the intelligence and economic support necessary to carry it out. Libya's surrender in 1999 of the suspects in the Lockerbie case "shows that international pressure had results," he says.

Today, however, the dimensions of terrorism, as seen in the global reach of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, are harder to track. "The geopolitical constellations of the 1980s are not at all like today's," Moreau says.

As for who carried out the La Belle bombing, prosecutor Mehlis has reached a conclusion similar to Mr. Reagan's: "It goes without saying that the attack was arranged by Libyan authorities."

The prosecution is asking for life sentences for four of the five defendants, who have followed the trial in bulletproof boxes in a gloomy, high-security Berlin courtroom. The defense strategy for the four prime suspects - three Arab men and a German woman - appears to be to cast doubt on evidence provided by the codefendants.

In the years immediately after the attack, it seemed the case would never be solved.

But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a high-ranking officer of the Stasi, the East German secret police, started talking about the shadowy role of the Libyan embassy in East Berlin. The new trail led to Ali Chanaa, a German of Palestinian origin, who had been reporting to the East Germans on what appeared to be a Libyan terrorist plot.

"The Stasi knew, thanks to its top agent, Mr. Chanaa, that the attack was organized by the Libyan embassy in East Berlin," says prosecutor Mehlis.

American authorities, too, were vaguely aware of an impending attack. According to East German Foreign Ministry files, days before the La Belle bomb went off, the US government informed East German authorities of its concerns about a brewing Libyan conspiracy, but the authorities took no action. On the night of the attack, the US commander in Berlin had ordered that American servicemen be cleared from places where they usually congregated, Mehlis says, adding that military police were on their way to the La Belle disco when the bomb went off.

Today, even after the testimony of more than a dozen Stasi agents, exactly who knew how much is still unclear.

After a secret meeting on Malta in 1996 with Musbah Abulghasem Eter, a former employee at the Libyan embassy in East Berlin, Mehlis concluded that Chanaa was not just a witness, but a suspect. Chanaa's former wife, Verena, also appeared to be implicated in the plot as the person who planted the bomb in the disco. Later, Mr. Eter himself became a suspect.

Lebanese authorities arrested a fourth suspect, Yasser Chraidi, who held a Libyan passport, on unrelated charges and extradited him to Germany in 1996. International arrest warrants for four more Libyans are still outstanding.

Jürgen Lischewski, the defense attorney representing Eter, says that the prosecution hasn't gotten anywhere close to the bottom of the case. "The question of the perpetrator behind the perpetrator has been left completely unanswered," Mr. Lischewski says. "What was discussed in this trial is only the small glow of a small candle."

Lawyers representing the defendants and the victims are both angry that the German government has prevented Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's top foreign policy adviser, Michael Steiner, and Berlin's former ambassador to Washington, Jürgen Chrobog, from testifying in court.

In a diplomatic cable this spring, Ambassador Chrobog reportedly wrote that in March Mr. Steiner told US officials, including President Bush, that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had personally confessed to involvement in the La Belle bombing. The embarrassing leak has since disappeared from the headlines.

For the bombing's victims, a clear link to the oil-rich Libyan regime could provide the basis for a compensation claim. Advocates for the victims criticize the lack of German government support after the attack.

"The victims were left to fend for themselves," says attorney Stephan Maigné. "They all should have had some sort of psychological counseling to overcome their experiences."

Instead, says Brunhild Freiwald, who lost her unborn child as a result of the bombing, the extent of state support she received was $250 for clothes damaged in the attack. Ms. Freiwald says that only since she testified in court did she begin confronting long-repressed feelings. "I can't imagine that any of the victims lived their lives normally afterwards," she says.

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