Libyans come to trial, 11 years after Lockerbie

Victims' families, relatives of accused in Netherlands court

May 04, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands -- Historic, hushed and for a few brief flashes sprinkled with drama, the trial of two Libyans in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, opened yesterday.

More than 11 years after the plane was blown out of the sky, the two men pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering 270 people, and their lawyers sought to shift the blame to Palestinian organizations.

There was a surreal quality to the trial's opening as defendants Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, clad in white Arabic robes, faced a room of wig-wearing Scottish judges and lawyers.

Behind a wall of bulletproof glass, relatives of the dead looked on as the trial they had fought years for finally began.

"It's like waiting for a movie to start," said Kathleen Flynn, whose son John died when a bomb broke the airliner into pieces and sent it plunging to the ground, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 villagers.

Staged nearly against all odds in a specially built Scottish court on a former U.S. air base under the protection of Scottish police armed with snub-nosed automatic weapons, the largest mass murder trial in Scottish history is expected to last a year and cost tens of millions of dollars.

For seven years, Libya endured international sanctions rather than surrender the suspects for trial. Last year, it agreed to the compromise of trial in a neutral site but under Scottish law.

With rigid formality, the nonjury trial began, as the four-judge panel that included an alternate and was led by Scotland's most experienced judge, Lord Ranald Iain Sutherland, strode into the court.

Asked if they were ready for trial, the defendants, dressed in traditional Libyan garb of velvet caps and long, white robes, said, through translators, that they were prepared "in the name of God the merciful."

Through their lawyers, they filed pleas of not guilty to the charges of murder, conspiracy to murder and contravention of the Aviation Security Act of 1982. If found guilty of the murder charge or violating the aviation act, the men face mandatory life sentences in a Scottish prison.

In a defense notice read by a clerk, the defendants' lawyers said evidence might be produced implicating others in the bombing -- the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front and the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command.

The defense said two prosecution witnesses might be incriminated by evidence -- including Mohamed Abo Talb, jailed in Sweden for his role in a string of bombings in the mid-1980s.

The defense gambit was in line with one bombing theory initially investigated in which Palestinian groups allegedly acted at the behest of Iran, which sought revenge for the downing of an Iranian Airbus with 290 people aboard by the American warship USS Vincennes in July 1988 during tension in the Persian Gulf.

The prosecution, meanwhile, contends that the defendants were members of the Libyan secret service. The men are accused of planting a bomb in a tape recorder that was transferred in unaccompanied luggage from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to the airliner before it left London bound for New York.

Much of the trial is likely to be taken up by testimony from more than 1,200 listed witnessesand the kind of legal maneuvering that delayed the trial's opening for months and nearly delayed it again last week, when the prosecution sought more time after the defense entered its long list of witnesses.

But the opening day contained its dramatic intervals.

Air traffic controllers who followed the flight on radar screens testified and charted the flight's course until the moment when radar showed the plane in three pieces and then, disappearing from the screen.

A British Airways pilot who witnessed the jet's final moments testified that the initial explosion "looked just like a gas flare burning off."

For most of the relatives who attended the opening, it was the first time they had a chance to see the men accused of killing their children, siblings or spouses.

"I hate them," said Daniel Cohen, whose daughter, Theodora, was killed.

"I'm not horrified or appalled," said Elizabeth Philipps, whose 20-year-old daughter, Sarah, died. "I'm going to keep looking at them. They won't look at me, though."

"People said to me long ago `Why are you going to the trial?'" said Philipps, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. "But this is my life. When your child is murdered, you go to the murder trial."

Maddy Shapiro walked into the court wearing a badge that had a photo of her 21-year-old daughter, Amy, a Syracuse University photo journalism student who was killed.

"She would have been one of you guys," she told reporters covering the trial.

"A large part of me didn't want to come here," Shapiro said. "I was afraid of my reaction."

Members of the defendants' families were in the gallery, including Megrahi's son and brother.

"He told us that he would prove he's not guilty," said the brother, Mohammed Ali al-Megrahi. "He said, `Don't worry, if it's justice, it's justice. Where there is a God, there is a justice.'"

Asked what it was like to hear the court clerk read the indictment against his brother, he said, it "squeezed my heart."

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