Libya, a international pariah for nearly seven years, received a guarded welcome back into the international community this month. The rehabilitation came after the two Libyan nationals accused by the US and Britain of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, were delivered to the custody of Scottish legal authorities at a special ‘neutral’ court in Holland on April 5. The UN subsequently suspended its embargo against Libya, which had been in place since April 15, 1992; total lifting remains dependent on total renunciation of terrorism and the meeting of certain other demands. European countries also made immediate moves to establish closer ties with Libya, a country with considerable oil income and which has made massive economic progress in the last few years, despite the embargo. (Its annual economic growth rate of 6.3 percent is double that of most western European countries.) The US, however, has retained its sanctions; the State Department is due to issue its annual report on terrorism in some weeks times, but officials say that Tripoli is continuing to fund some ‘extremist’ Palestinian groups.
The two Libyans now under custody in Holland, Abdel Basset Ali-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were formally indicted on April 6, in a dramatic hearing at which the charges against them, jointly drafted by US and British authorities and announced in November 1991 were read out in both Arabic and English. The names of all 270 victims of the bombing were read out. They will be tried under Scottish law in a special court built at a former US airbase 30 miles south of Amsterdam. The case will be heard by three Scottish judges rather than a jury. Under Scottish law, the trial must start within 110 days of the defendants being charged, unless they ask for more time to prepare their defence after being informed of the evidence which the prosecutors are planning to present against them. They are expected to do this; legal experts say that the trial is unlikely to take place for at least a year.
The Libyan decision to surrender the two men to Scottish justice comes after 10 years during which the west has variously blamed Palestinians, Iran, Syria, and Libya for the bombing at different times. After three years of tortuous theorising, the US and Britain settled on Libya as their chosen suspect and issued charges against Al-Magrahi and Fhimah. Since then, the debate has centred on whether and on what terms the Libyan government would surrender them for trial.
In law, there was no basis for the UN to intervene in a legal dispute between countries which have no extradition treaty. No sanctions, for example, have been suggested against Israel for refusing to return jews to the US for trial on charges of murder or other serious crimes. However, US and British influence in the UN secured them reluctant international compliance to what many countries regard as a US-inspired campaign against Libya which has nothing to do with Lockerbie.
Since the UN sanctions were imposed, Libya has repeatedly offered terms by which the men could be surrendered for trial. The first of these was that they should be tried by a Muslim court anywhere in the world. Then Libya offered that they could be tried by an international court, and later that they should be tried by a court in a neutral country. Libya’s main concern has been that the men could not get a fair trial in Britain, and that there should be some international involvement to ensure justice. The US and Britain refused to accept any possible compromise and stiffened their sanctions, with French support, in 1994. The initiative for breaking the deadlock came from the families of victims, particularly in Britain, who concluded that the Libyan governments’ concerns were reasonable and that the US and British governments were more concerned with persecuting Libya than discovering the truth about the Lockerbie bombing. In 1996 they appealed to South African president Nelson Mandela to help break the deadlock. It has been this connection, after various further controversies, and with the nominal involvement of the Saudi and Egyptian governments, which has led to this agreement, by which the trial is taking place in a Scottish court sitting near Amsterdam. The Libyans’ final demand was that the men serve their jail sentences in Libya if convicted; they have apparently agreed that the two men would be imprisoned in Scotland but their conditions and treatment would be guaranteed by the UN. Settlement of the dispute on these terms has been only reluctantly accepted by the British government, and is still opposed by the US.
However, what will happen if and when the two men are convicted remains to be seen. Legal experts say that the case against them, if based on the evidence on which they were extradited, is very weak. The only positive identification of either man has been by a shopkeeper in Sliema, Malta, where the two men were based as employees of the Libyan state airline. He claims to be sure that they were the men who bought the clothes which are believed to have been in the brown Samsonite suitcase which allegedly contained the bomb. However, Scottish law demands strong corroboration of identification evidence, which is markedly absent. Moreover, the same shopkeeper had earlier ù at a time when the US was trying to pin the bombing on a Palestinian group ù positively identified another man, a Palestinian called Abu Talb, as having bought the suitcase.
There is also no evidence linking the two men with the bomb or the explosives. There is only circumstantial evidence to suggest that they had the opportunity, in their capacities as operations manager and security manager at for Libyan Airways at Luqa Airport, to have placed the suitcase on a KLM flight to Amsterdam, where it was transferred to Flight 103. When the case does come to court, moreover, it will be muddied by the various other theories that US and British intelligence and law enforcement agencies have put forward at different times, and the evidence which has been put forward to support those.
It is standard procedure in extradition cases that the prosecution evidence is assessed by a court in the country being asked to surrender the defendents, to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to justify prosecution. Another factor a Libyan court could have considered was whether the two men would get a fair trial, especially in view of Britain’s record of defendents being wrongly convicted because of police impropriety or public pressure ù particularly in politically sensitive cases concerning Irish nationalists, for example ù as well the British legal system’s known racism. Moreover, even British legal experts accept that there has been so much prejudicial media coverage of the case over the last seven years that a fair trial in Britain would be impossible. (One British paper racistly commented that the two Libyans’ faces were perfect images of foreign terrorists). Any one of these factors alone would have been justification enough for Libya to decide against extradition. But they were not permitted to exercise this right. Instead, the US and Britain insisted on using their political clout to interfere in what should be an impartial legal process. It is extremely unlikely that they can now afford for the two men to be cleared of the charges. Even the unique Scottish verdict of ‘case not proven’ would be politically unacceptable. The likelihood must be that, over the next few months, the prosecution will find enough new forensic or intelligence evidence for the two Libyans to be locked up for a very long time indeed. Such a result would also bring further western wrath down upon Libya. But, as some members of the victims’ families have already realized, that would not bring them any nearer to knowing who was responsible for the bombing.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1999