By Ian Black, Diplomatic Editor
Tuesday July 21, 1998
Britain and the US have decided that two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing can be tried in The Hague under Scottish law, reversing their position that justice can only be done under their jurisdiction - and shifting the onus on to Colonel Gadafy to hand them over.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary and Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, are to make the announcement simultaneously in London and Washington in the next few days, the Guardian has learned.
The U-turn follows growing evidence that the campaign to isolate Libya
through sanctions was beginning to crumble in the face of an obdurate Libyan
The two allies reached agreement earlier this month but the announcement has been held up pending a new government in Holland, whose approval is required for the trial to go ahead.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, described as Libyan intelligence agents, were accused in November 1991 of planting the suitcase bomb that killed 270 people on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.
It was the worst act of terrorism in British history, and there have been several conflicting theories and much speculation about who was responsible.
Libya has consistently refused to hand over the men, despite the imposition of United Nations sanctions which Britain and the US are finding increasingly hard to maintain in the face of their refusal to accept a third country trial.
For nearly seven years both have insisted that the trial can be held only in Scotland or the US. They rejected as disingenuous Libyan claims that the two could not get justice under such jursidiction.
The move will be welcomed by families of the British victims, long frustrated at the impasse. They have urged London and Washington should show flexibility.
Libya has not yet been informed of the new position, which is likely to follow closely a proposal made by the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity, which have said Colonel Gadafy will accept a court operating under the Scottish legal procedure.
Under this proposal, it would have an international panel of judges instead of a jury, presided over by a senior Scottish judge appointed by Tony Blair.
The Hague is home to the International Court of Justice and the Bosnia War Crimes Tribunal. If the two men are handed over, and convicted, special arrangements will have to be made for their imprisonment.
Diplomats believe it is unlikely that Colonel Gadafy will agree to surrender the men but argue that if he does not, it should be easier to reinforce the sanctions.
In recent months both governments have watched with mounting alarm as they have become isolated over the sanctions in the Arab world, Africa, and beyond. They have concluded that they need to regain the initiative.
Both countries also want to focus their energies on maintaining the far more important UN sanctions against Iraq, still seen as a significant international threat in the way that Libya no longer is.
Only last week Italy said it wanted to normalise relations with its former colony, while Mrs Albright was furious when the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, sought and obtained UN permission on humanitarian grounds to fly to Libya to see Colonel Gadafy, suffering from a broken hip.
Lockerbie: the West takes a gamble
Most of the world has lost its taste for punishing Libya. Ian Black reveals how the US and Britain are hoping to regain the whip hand
Tuesday July 21, 1998
Nearly 10 years after the worst act of terrorism in contemporary British history, the decision to agree to the Lockerbie bombing suspects being tried in a neutral venue - expected to be announced later this week - offers the first chance for justice to be done.
It represents a dramatic turning point in the long and exhausting battle of wills between the United States and Britain on the one hand and Colonel Muammar Gadafy on the other - a battle that began when Libya's leader was blamed for the deadly suitcase bomb placed on a Boeing jet, probably in Malta, just before Christmas 1988, and which brought mayhem and carnage to the Scottish town over which the plane broke up.
For Libyans and many Arabs, Lockerbie has become a byword for American-inspired arrogance, another example of superpower readiness to use the blunt instrument of sanctions, like those imposed on Libya, to bully smaller countries.
For relatives of the 270 victims of Pan-Am flight 103 - American, British and others - it was a personal tragedy. Many had all but given up hope of seeing the two Libyans under suspicion brought to trial.
Britain and the US always insisted that the two, members of the Libyan intelligence services, must face trial either in Scotland or the US, and argued that Libyan claims that the men could not expect justice in these venues were simply disingenuous.
Pressure from the relatives has certainly had some effect in changing the stance of London and Washington. But the key lies in the sense both capitals now have that without some movement on the Western side, Col Gadafy would never budge.
Lockerbie has been high on the Labour Government's agenda since it took office in May last year, when it ordered a review of the evidence, though so far there has been no public hint from the Foreign Office or elsewhere of the extraordinary turnaround in the case.
Indeed, Libya itself has yet to be to informed of the change of heart by Britain and the US, but there have been preliminary contacts in recent days through the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
There must be grave doubts, however, that Col Gadafy will allow two secret agents to appear in any court. Most Libya-watchers agree that to do so would be to expose his own regime to a charge of state terrorism.
So while there is clearly no guarantee that the suspects will come to court, the British-American agreement to a neutral venue puts the onus squarely on Libya to comply. This - given that international support for the Anglo-American position has been withering away - should make it easier to maintain Libya's isolation if it does not comply.
Few details are known of the precise offer to be made to Tripoli, but it is likely to follow closely one made by two key supporters of Libya - the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity - which have said Col Gadafy will accept a court operating under the criminal law and procedure of Scotland.
In place of a jury, the envisaged court would have an international panel of judges, presided over by a senior Scottish judge appointed by Tony Blair.
It is understood that the court would sit in The Hague, already home to the International Court of Justice and the Bosnia War Crimes Tribunal. If the two were handed over, and convicted, there would be the question of where they would be imprisoned.
The Britain-US decision will be applauded by many of the Lockerbie relatives, led at the British end by Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, Flora, in the atrocity on December 21, 1988.
Dr Swire asked recently: "What do Britain and America have to lose by agreeing to a neutral-country trial, except perhaps a smidgeon of national pride? Are not justice and truth more important than that?"
Years of pain and frustration have led many of the bereaved to believe in complex conspiracy theories about the bombing, variously blaming Iran, Palestinian radicals or Syria, even though the evidence gathered in this country by Dumfries and Galloway Police is said to provide a strong case against the two Libyans.
Indictments against the two agents were issued in November 1991 but Libya has always refused to hand the men over. In 1992 the United Nations imposed an air and arms embargo intended to isolate the North African country until it complied.
The curbs were tightened in 1993 to include a freeze on some Libyan assets abroad and a ban on some types of equipment used in oil terminals and refineries.
But because of the scale of European dependence on Libyan oil the sanctions were not allowed to affect the country's oil exports or oil drilling equipment.
Recently international enthusiasm has waned sharply and the US and Britain have found themselves almost alone as Col Gadafy has bought friends and influence in Africa with cheap oil deals and outright bribes.
The Organisation of African Unity is threatening to cease complying with the sanctions from September this year, unless the UN Security Council agrees to a third-country trial. Last October, South Africa's influential president, Nelson Mandela, visited Libya on his way to and from the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh.
Last week, Egypt's moderate president, Hosni Mubarak - the largest recipient of US aid after Israel - flew to Libya to visit Col Gadafy after the Libyan leader broke his hip. The UN gave permission on humanitarian grounds, but the message was clear: patience with Libya's punishment was running out.