U.S., Britain agree to trial of Flight 103 case in The Hague Compromise in bombing of Pan Am jet angers some families of victims

August 24, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In an unprecedented legal arrangement designed to bring a decade-old national trauma to closure, the Clinton administration has agreed to allow the two Libyans charged with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 to be tried by a Scottish court in The Hague, according to U.S. officials and families of the victims.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is expected to notify the families in a conference call today, according to families who have been told to be available.

The compromise plan calls for Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who are allegedly Libyan intelligence agents, to be tried by a panel of Scottish judges under Scottish law at The Hague in the Netherlands, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday.

"The goal is to see if we can't resolve this long overdue and outstanding case and bring these two men to justice," said a well-placed U.S. official. "This is a chance to move forward."

The compromise has infuriated several families of the 270 victims who died when the jumbo jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, four days before Christmas.

"It's appalling. It's a desecration. It's the one thing that the U.S. government said it would never do," said Susan Cohen, whose daughter Theodora died in the attack.

"What does it say about the integrity of the American legal system when a terrorist takes the line that he can't get a fair trial in America and wants it in a neutral country -- and we agree to hold a trial somewhere else? Why should a terrorist have a right to decide where he is tried?"

But, if nothing else, the take-it-or-leave-it deal will call Libya's bluff, counterterrorism officials say.

The regime of Col. Muammar el Kadafi, which has refused to turn over the two men since they were indicted in 1991, has long sought a compromise location and an international panel of judges because it charges that the suspects would not receive a fair trial in the United States or Britain.

The U.S. proposal, agreed to by Britain, is an attempt to break the long impasse and follows months of behind-the-scenes discussions with the Dutch government and other third parties. The United States and Britain intend to stand firm, however, on Scottish judges rather than an international panel.

The final decision awaits formal Netherlands approval today.

Several families also are charging that the proposal represents a Libyan buyout because of discussions over a $9.7 billion deal between the Kadafi government and British Aerospace, Europe's biggest aircraft and arms-maker.

But for the deal to go through, U.N. sanctions against Libya would have to be lifted.

Despite Kadafi's repeated offers of a compromise, administration officials are not sure that his government in Tripoli will agree to the deal, in part because testimony by the two suspects is expected to point to the highest levels of the Libyan government, U.S. officials say.

At the time of the 1991 indictment, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the midair bombing "a Libyan government operation from start to finish."

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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