Libyan Convicted in Lockerbie Trial

Wednesday, January 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands (AP) — A Scottish court convicted a Libyan intelligence officer of murder and acquitted a second Libyan Wednesday in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The court sentenced the Libyan agent to life in prison in the explosion that killed 270 people, many of them Americans.

The verdict was the climax of an $80 million trial and nearly nine months of hearings at a special court in the Netherlands stemming from the bombing of the New York-bound flight. The White House said sanctions on Libya would remain in place, and U.S. officials said they will keep investigating the bombing.

The court said it was giving Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, 48, the prospect of parole in view of his age and the fact that he was serving a foreign government.

``In view of the horrendous nature of this crime, our recommendation is a minimum period'' of 20 years, the court said, three hours after handing down its guilty verdict.

Many victims' families said it would not give them a sense of closure.

Daniel Cohen, who lost his 20-year-old daughter Theodora, clasped his hands and breathed deeply, overcome by emotion when he heard the verdict in his New Jersey home in the United States.

``I'm happier than I thought I would be,'' he said. ``Both would have been better, but the important thing is that the Libyan government has been indicted in this thing.''

Presiding Judge Lord Ranald Sutherland said al-Megrahi, who will serve the sentence in a Scottish prison, would be deported if he were given parole. Al-Megrahi maintained his innocence, an indication he will appeal.

Sutherland told Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, the second defendant: ``You are discharged and free to go.'' Both verdicts were unanimous among the tribunal's three judges.

In its 82-page judgment, the court said it relied heavily on testimony identifying al-Megrahi as the man who bought the clothing in Malta that cushioned the bomb inside a suitcase. Also damaging was evidence that al-Megrahi used a false Libyan passport to enter Malta on the day before the bombing, Dec. 20, 1988, and used it the next day to leave. ``It was never used again,'' the judges said.

The judges dismissed testimony from a CIA double agent that al-Megrahi was seen at Malta's Luqa Airport with a brown Samsonite bag on Dec. 20, accompanied by Fhimah.

Without that testimony, ``there is no evidence at all to suggest that the second accused (Fhimah) was even at Luqa Airport,'' and the prosecution's theory that he helped place the explosives on board a flight was ``in the realm of speculation.''

Judges declined to use the option of a ``not proven'' verdict against Fhimah.

Clare Connelly, a legal expert at Glasgow University, said ``there just was not enough evidence'' against Fhimah. ``The judges think that Fhimah assisted al-Megrahi,'' but that he did not know why he was doing so.

A cry of near-delight went up from the dozens of relatives in the public gallery when the verdict on al-Megrahi was read.

Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in the explosion, fainted after the verdict but later returned to the courtroom.

Many relatives of the victims pointed fingers at the government in Tripoli.

``I don't want (Moammar) Gadhafi to be let off the hook here,'' said Helen Engelhart, one of the U.S. victims' relatives, wearing a button with a picture of her deceased husband Tony Hawkins.

Peter Lowenstein, from Syracuse, N.Y., whose 21-year-old son Alexander died in the disaster, said ``the guilty verdict links the Libyan government to the death of 270 people.''

The White House said the delivery of a verdict did not mean an automatic end to U.N. sanctions against Libya.

``U.N. Security Council resolutions call on Libya to satisfy certain requirements, including compensation to the victims' families and the acceptance of responsibility for this act of terrorism, before U.N. sanctions will be removed,'' the White House said. ``The government of Libya has not yet satisfied these requirements.''

President Bush called the verdict ``a victory for an international effort'' and said he hoped family members of those killed ``are able to find some solace in the measure of justice achieved by this decision.''

Bob Mueller, acting U.S. deputy attorney general, said: ``The investigation continues to determine who else may have been involved in this act of terrorism.''

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said the verdict ``confirms our long-standing suspicion that Libya instigated the Lockerbie bombing.''

Abuzed Omar Dorda, Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press his government had nothing to do with it.

``There is no single official Libyan involved in this. And the accused person or persons in that Scotch court ... was two individuals. It has nothing to do with the Libyan officials. And besides that, when the prosecutors dropped two of their accusations which concerned conspiracy, that means by the definition of Scotch lawyers and law experts, that Libya as a state has nothing to do with that.''

He said Libya ``condemns all forms of terrorism.''

Al-Siddiq Al-Shibani, a senior Libyan Foreign Ministry official, sought to play down the significance of the verdict and told state television he was certain that Scottish authorities would ensure al-Megrahi's ``comfort and protection'' during the appeal.

``The verdict against the Libyan citizen does not mean the end of the story or the end of the world,'' said Al-Shibani, who is in charge of legal affairs in the ministry. ``The defendant has a good chance in the appeal.''

Fhimah is immediately free to leave the Netherlands and return to Libya. Al-Megrahi has 14 days to appeal.

Al-Megrahi, 48, was an aviation security chief for Libyan intelligence. Fhimah, 44, was the former Libyan Arab Airlines station manager in Malta.

Prosecutors said the two men conspired to smuggle a bomb-laden suitcase onto a flight from the Mediterranean island of Malta, tagging it for transfer in Frankfurt, Germany, and then to the doomed jetliner in London.

When a small package of plastic explosives detonated at 31,000 feet, the aircraft was ripped apart, sending 259 passengers and crew to their deaths. Eleven were killed on the ground by falling wreckage. Some 189 Americans died in the crash.

Neil Gallagher, assistant FBI director, said he was pleased with the verdict, but ``it's not a sense of satisfaction because there's still 270 innocent people who were murdered on that day.''

Libyan Ambassador Hamed al-Hedderi was in the courtroom for the verdict. Libyan television, monitored in Cairo, went live to its own correspondent in Camp Zeist, who reported the verdict matter-of-factly. Many people in downtown Tripoli, Libya's capital, sat around television and radio sets.

In 85 days of hearings, the court heard 235 witnesses present more than 10,000 pages of testimony. The defense called only three witnesses after failing to obtain documents from the Syrian government it said would implicate a Damascus-backed Palestinian terrorist group.

The burden of proof, however, lay with the prosecution, which dropped charges of conspiracy and violation of air safety regulations at the end of their case, focusing on the toughest charge to prove — murder.

Stiff economic sanctions against Libya were suspended in 1999 after it agreed to surrender the suspects for trial. Diplomats from the United Nations, Britain and Libya had said last week they were reviewing the penalties.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the verdict should be respected. ``Justice has taken its course,'' he said.

American sanctions include restrictions on trade and travel and a ban on U.S. oil companies from operating there.

In Lockerbie, many said they felt sympathy for the victims' families. ``The whole trial was a farce,'' said waitress Amanda Vandale.

Bob Monetti, 57, of Cherry Hill, N.J., who lost his son, was among those watching from a closed-circuit broadcast in Washington, D.C.

``We got the best we could possibly hope for,'' Monetti said. ``I'll tell you this, in a U.S. civil court, it'll be drop-dead easy to convict Libya, not just this one guy.''


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