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Appeals court upholds conviction of Libyan in bombing of Pan Am Flight 103


CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands (AP) _ A Scottish appeals court Thursday upheld the conviction of a former Libyan intelligence agent for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people.

The five-judge court ruled unanimously that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, 49, was responsible for the bomb that brought down the Boeing 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. They rejected a defense appeal that argued new evidence would cast doubt on the original ruling.

``We have concluded that none of the grounds of appeal is well founded,'' said the presiding judge, Lord Cullen. ``The appeal will accordingly be refused.''

``This brings the procedures to an end,'' he said, closing the book on a judicial process that took nearly two years and cost $100 million.

Al-Megrahi's wife broke down when the verdict was announced, and was led from the public gallery wailing in grief. The reaction of relatives of the victims, many from the United States and Britain, was muted, mostly a shaking of hands.

``Finally there is justice today,'' said Kathleen Flynn, of Montville, N.J., whose 21-year-old son was killed in the plane. Speaking outside the courtroom, she called the ruling a ``milestone against terrorism.''

Libyan officials reacted with anger to the verdict and security was increased around embassies and U.N. offices in the capital Tripoli. ``All the Libyan people, all the Arab people, are upset by this judgment,'' said the president of the Libyan bar association, Hafid Jhoja.

The father of another American victim called for a stronger response.

``To me, this (verdict) is not a deterrent,'' said Robert Hunt, whose 20-year-old daughter Karen was killed in the bombing. ``It just says, 'Hey, we can blow up a building or an airplane and it's going to take the U.S. 13 years to put one low-level henchman in jail.'''

``I think Sept. 11 has sent a message to terrorist groups that we're not going to sit back and take it anymore,'' Hunt said from his home in Rochester, N.Y. ``We're not going to wait to gather enough evidence to come to a court of law.''

In a 200-page judgment, the court said the prosecution had compiled a compelling case of circumstantial evidence that was not shaken by the defense appeal.

``In reaching its decision to convict the appellant, the trial court found that the evidence fitted together to form a real and convincing pattern,'' the judges said.

Al-Megrahi was found guilty last year of loading an unaccompanied suitcase bomb onto a flight in Malta that was later transferred onto Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded en route from London to New York over Lockerbie, Scotland.

His alleged accomplice, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, also a Libyan, was acquitted.

Al-Megrahi, who has been held at Camp Zeist since his extradition in April 1999, was expected to be transferred to a prison in Scotland within hours.

Jhoja said the court had been swayed by political influence. ``The trial was a political matter, not a legal matter. There was no clear evidence, as the whole world knows,'' he told reporters outside the courtroom.

The verdict will increase pressure on Libya's ruler, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, to pay compensation to the victims to remove sanctions imposed by the United States. U.N. sanctions were suspended but not lifted in 1999 after Gadhafi turned over al-Megrahi and Fhima to the court. Washington continues to apply its own sanctions against Libya, including a ban on air travel.

In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he hoped the decision would bring ``solace and comfort'' to the families. ``Libya has shown the desire to turn away from international terrorism,'' he said, but he urged Gadhafi to fulfill his obligations.

In the appeal, which opened Jan. 23, al-Megrahi's lawyers argued there had been a miscarriage of justice by the lower court in weighing the evidence. Defense lawyers also presented new evidence they said would cast doubt on the prosecution case.

Two new witnesses told the appeals court they found evidence of a break-in in the baggage area at London's Heathrow Airport hours before the Pan Am flight took off, suggesting that the bomb-laden suitcase could have been loaded in London rather than in Malta, as concluded by the trial court.

Defense lawyers say they only found out about the two witnesses only after the verdict was delivered Jan. 31, 2001.

The original trial, held in the same high-security courtroom on a former U.S. air base in the Netherlands, was presented to a panel of three judges instead of a jury.

The explosives detonated 38 minutes after takeoff from Heathrow, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground in the village of Lockerbie.
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