Defense questions credibility of key witness in Lockerbie appeal

Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Defense lawyers and British politicians raised more questions Monday about the credibility of a witness whose testimony was critical in convicting a Libyan for the 1988 bombing of an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

At an appeals hearing in the Netherlands, attorney William Taylor said the identification of his client, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was prejudiced because the witness, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, had seen his photograph in a magazine a few weeks before singling him out in a lineup.

Al-Megrahi, 49, opened his appeal last Wednesday of his conviction one year ago for planting a bomb-laden suitcase onto a flight in Malta. The suitcase was later transferred onto Pan Am flight 103, which exploded shortly after takeoff from Heathrow Airport.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment, while a second defendant was acquitted.

Gauci picked out al-Megrahi in a lineup of suspects in April 1999, more than 10 years after he said the former Libyan intelligence agent bought clothing in his store. Investigators said those clothes were used to pack the suitcase in which the bomb was concealed.

Taylor said Gauci had seen a magazine article in late 1998 or early 1999 about the Lockerbie case which displayed al-Megrahi's photograph and said he was a suspect.

``There was a very direct way in which the witness may have been influenced in his identification,'' Taylor argued.

The attorney also raised discrepancies in Gauci's earlier statements to police and his testimony in court about his al-Megrahi's height and age.

Taylor was painstakingly working his way through 17 points of appeal before the prosecution responds, and the hearings were likely to last several weeks. Unlike in the trial in 2000 before a three-judge court, the defense rather than the prosecution bears the burden of proof before the five appellate judges.

In London, Tam Dalyell, a member of Parliament, said Monday he wanted the government to respond to reports that police organized vacations for Gauci in Scotland. It was not clear whether the trips occurred before or after the trial, which was held in the same former air base at Camp Zeist where the appeal was being heard.

The Mail on Sunday reported that it had obtained secret tapes in which Gauci claimed he had been flown from his home in Malta to Scotland for fishing, hiking and bird-watching trips.

The paper said Gauci was also taken to Lockerbie to be shown the damage caused by the explosion on December 21, 1988, which killed all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.