Lawyers open appeal of Libyan's conviction in Lockerbie bombing

Wednesday, January 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands (AP) _ Lawyers for a former Libyan intelligence agent appealed his conviction in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and asked a Scottish court Wednesday to hear new evidence proving a miscarriage of justice.

But trial watchers cautioned that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi has ``no more than a slim chance'' to win his appeal, because of the rigid standards applied by Scottish High Court judges during his initial trial that ended one year ago.

Al-Megrahi was convicted a year ago and sentenced to life imprisonment for planting the bomb that blew Pan Am flight 103 from the sky on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years. A co-defendant, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.

If successful, the appeal would help Libya rehabilitate its image as a supporter of international terrorism and could further Tripoli's campaign to remove international sanctions against it.

It also would ease Libya's relations with the United States. Earlier this month, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, met Libyan officials in London urging Tripoli to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and compensate the victims' families.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that the United States has had ``positive discussions'' with Libya, but the two sides were not close to a deal removing Libya from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorists.

An acquittal also would deepen the mystery of one of the worst air disaster's of all time, canceling the results of a 13-year criminal probe and putting the investigation back to square one.

In opening remarks, defense attorney William Taylor said he wanted to call a witness to testify about a security breach at London's Heathrow Airport, challenging the conclusion that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi had placed the bomb on a plane in Malta.

Taylor also argued that the three trial judges, who not only presided over the case but acted as jurors, failed to see the relevance of ``significant'' evidence and accepted unreliable facts when determining their verdict.

Glasgow University legal professor John Grant said the defense faces an uphill battle and estimated al-Megrahi's chances of acquittal as ``not very good.''

``Three senior judges actually decided the case,'' he said. ``It's hard to imagine that the judges could have miscarried justice so severely that they would prejudice Mr. Megrahi's case.''

Unlike a jury of laymen who can easily misinterpret the law, professional judges are less likely to make mistakes or falter on technical grounds.

In the 82-page verdict of Jan. 31, the judges said they found enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that al-Megrahi was the perpetrator of what was then the worst terrorist attack against the United States.

``This is an appeal against the verdict of three High Court judges who were the finders of fact, as well as the arbiters of the law,'' Taylor said. ``Because we have reasons for the verdict in writing, this case is far removed from a jury verdict which is, by its nature and by law, inscrutable.''

Prosecutor Alan Turnbull said al-Megrahi's appeal was materially ``insufficient'' to overturn the conviction. And before new witnesses can be heard, the defense must convince the judges of their relevance and explain why their evidence was not presented during the original trial.

The appeal questioned the testimony of Toni Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who identified the al-Megrahi as having purchased clothing found in the Lockerbie wreckage which police said was used to pad the bomb inside the suitcase.

A summary of the appeal said the defense also had obtained two affidavits from Raymond Walter Manly, a security guard at Heathrow, indicating that some time in the two hours before the ill-fated flight left London, a padlock had been broken on a gate leading to the baggage area.

The defense said it had not been aware of Manly's evidence at the time of the trial. The guard gave his depositions last February and March _ several weeks after the verdict was rendered.

Some of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims _ 179 of them Americans _ attended Wednesday's hearing. They have persistently objected that the investigation did not trace the bombers up the chain of command, and hold the Libyan government responsible.