Thu, 04 May 2000

Lockerbie: The trial begins at last

By Ian Black

LONDON: Nearly 12 years after the event, the chilling story of the Lockerbie bombing finally gets its first ever full airing on Wednesday when three Scottish judges open proceedings in a unique court on a Dutch air base.

Many people believed this day would never come. And many still doubt whether the truth of the biggest act of mass murder in British history -- and one of the most devastating instances of terrorism in modern times -- will be told, or the real culprits be punished.

The two Libyans in the dock at Camp Zeist are described by the prosecution as members of their country's intelligence service, though both deny this.

Unsurprisingly, their lawyers have indicated that the main defense will be to incriminate others -- members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), originally suspected of involvement.

But the trial is certain to revisit other theories. Iran, Syria, as well as the PFLP-GC, will put in appearances.

So will the story of the USS Vincennes, which shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Gulf, and the 1986 U.S.- British bombing of Libya, in which Col. Muammar Qaddafi's adopted daughter died. "Locker A," Qaddafi once called that, in a telling hint at what lay behind "Locker B."

In the face of such confusion, it is imperative to get to the bottom of what happened to Pan Am 103. Since December 1988, Lockerbie has become a cottage industry: books and films have appeared; websites are devoted to it. The media presence at Zeist will be intense. Glasgow University academics will be on hand to explain Scottish law.

But Lockerbie seems destined to leave enduring mysteries -- about bomb fragments, timing devices, luggage labels, witness identification and, perhaps above all, the shadowy role of intelligence agencies.

Even if the accused are convicted, the court is unlikely to hear clear answers to the key questions -- motive, and the chain of command in Tripoli, though the star prosecution witness, a Libyan defector living under a new identity in the U.S. may deliver.

Getting the men into custody was a huge feat. It owed most to Nelson Mandela's friendship with Qaddafi and to British foreign secretary Robin Cook, who recognized that a radical shift was required if the deadlock was to be broken, and the sense to let Mandela and Kofi Annan do the heavy lifting.

Persuading the Americans to go along was a triumph. Yet the deal contained an implicit promise: two individuals, not an entire regime, would be in the dock. For Libya the prize was an end to pariah as irksome UN sanctions gave way to business as usual, especially oil business.

So was it all a cynical ploy to let the big fish off the hook while leaving the small fry to take their chances on ending up in the UN wing of Glasgow's Barlinnie prison?

Up to a point, yes, though no more cynical than the way states routinely draw lines under each other's crimes after a decent interval.

Lord Copper's interlocutors should consider other arguments too. The French, it is true, did things differently. In the case of the UTA plane downed by a suitcase bomb over Niger in 1989, killing 170 people, they made do with a trial in absentia and convicted, among others, Abdullah Senussi, then head of Libyan intelligence, and Qaddafi's brother-in-law. Compensation was paid and Franco-Libyan relations restored. Full marks for Parisian honesty. Nil for justice.

Britain did the same over police officer Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead from inside the Libyan Peoples Bureau in London in 1984, and obtained blood money for her family last year. But no one was ever punished for her murder.

Critics of the Lockerbie trial need to ponder this question: if people who put bombs on planes are not brought to book -- because they were "only" obeying orders -- what chance is there that a future bomber will disobey?

To follow the small fry/fall guy argument is to make the best the enemy of the good -- and to abandon any pretense that impunity matters.

Two years before Pan Am 103 came down, Nezar Hindawi, a Syrian agent, persuaded his pregnant (and unwitting) Irish girlfriend to carry a bomb onto an El Al Jumbo at London's Heathrow airport.

He richly deserved the 45 years he is now serving. Surely it is better that terrorists be pursued in the courts rather than by blind revenge?

The U.S. raid of 1986 -- still the most likely reason for Lockerbie -- was retaliation for a Libyan bomb attack that killed American servicemen in a Berlin discotheque.

Will Camp Zeist be a charade? Not for relatives of the victims who desperately need to know why their loved ones died. Journalists and pundits have had a dozen years of field days with this extraordinary story.

It is now the turn of the bereaved families to hear in full what the governments claim to know -- and for the court to decide. Full justice may well be impossible to achieve. But the truth is still worth having.

-- Guardian News Service