SUNDAY HERALD
14 January 2001 

Last days of the lockerbie trial

It began with the whole world watching, but few have stayed the course. Neil Mackay reports from Camp Zeist
Publication Date: Jan 14 2001

WHEN the Lockerbie trial finally limps towards its end this week it will be with a whimper rather than a bang. Somehow or other, the dying days of a court case about mass murder and international terrorism have been muted to the point of anti-climax.

 In the opening months of 2000 this was being hailed as the trial of the century. Just over six months later, the courtroom at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands is less than a quarter full. Only a handful of reporters from agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters are present to watch the proceedings.

 On Wednesday there was a farcical moment of excitement among the press when two unknown faces walked into the court. They turned out to be a local mother and her teenage son from the town of Soesterberg who had nothing to do so decided to spend a day rubbernecking at alleged terrorists.

 Even the defence team last week sent the trial into its endgame by deciding to put forward no defence as they believed there was nothing really to defend or disprove. There are few insiders and Lockerbie watchers who believe the two accused, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, will be found guilty of the murder of 270 people over Scotland in December 1988.

 That is hardly a criticism of the prosecution team, led by Colin Boyd, Scotland's Lord Advocate. They are, after all, trying to shine a light into a world that even British and American intelligence find impenetrable.

Among those still paying attention, speculation is rife as to what the verdict will be. Gossip has it that two of the three judges - there is no jury - favour acquitting or handing down not proven verdicts for both defendants, while the third wants to convict Megrahi and free Fhimah.

 True? Who knows. The judges need only reach a majority decision to arrive at a verdict. However, if they are split they are obliged by law to reveal any differences of opinion.

 The earliest the verdict could come in is on Friday. Bill Taylor, the QC representing Megrahi, is expected to end his summing-up on Tuesday or Wednesday. Richard Keen, the QC for Fhimah, will then certainly conclude his summation before the end of Thursday afternoon. Although the panel of judges may well adjourn for a week or more to consider evidence, they could also give the verdict the next day.

 Given that this trial has a history of delays and repeated adjournments, no-one is brave or foolish enough to start guessing verdict dates at the moment.

 The rumour mill also got a little over-heated earlier in the week when two of the three charges against the Libyans were dropped by the prosecution. The Crown abandoned charges of conspiracy and a breach of aviation laws to concentrate solely on the murder charge. There were claims that this showed just how confident the prosecution was in securing a guilty verdict on the murder charge.

 In fact it shows nothing of the sort. Even in the most anodyne of murder cases it is a recognised tactic of prosecutors to add additional charges in order to be able to present as much damaging evidence as possible to the court. These additional charges are often dropped at the last moment so a jury can concentrate on convicting a defendant on the most serious charge before them - murder.

 There is a feeling of despair and inevitability around the court. On Thursday there were little more than 10 British and American relatives of the Lockerbie dead in the court. On the first day of the trial there were probably more than 100 family members there. Many have lost heart. Few of the American relatives see the case as more than a show trial. Many never wanted to see Megrahi and Fhimah on trial by themselves. They wanted their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, and everyone in the chain of command right up to Colonel Gadaffi himself in the dock.

Then there is Dr Jim Swire, the most prominent of the British family members, who never really believed that Libya was behind the bombing in the first place. Since the beginning of the trial he has been a daily fixture in the court and now, ever the diplomat, he is hinting heavily that the Libyan theory was far from rock-solid. While the defence insisted in its summing up that a Palestinian terrorist organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), was actually behind the Lockerbie bombing, Swire said: "Everything that has been said in court until now pales into insignificance in comparison to these claims. If what is being put forward is true, it would have the gravest of consequences for the prosecution."

 Another member of the delegation of British families, the Rev John Mosey, said: "I think we are just hearing now that there is more to this case than meets the eye."

 The only frustrating problem is that the defence decision to put on no defence robs us of the detail of why the PFLP-GC may have been the bombers. Defence now believes it has only to destroy the prosecution's case to get the two defendants off the hook, so the legal team didn't take the gamble of calling witnesses to the stand who, although they may have proved the PFLP-GC theory, might also have been damaging to Fhimah and Megrahi.

 There was nobody in court during the week who had not reached the conclusion that the Lockerbie trial is serving a purpose beyond that of attempting to seek justice. Throughout the week Hamed El Houden, Libya's ambassador to the Benelux countries, sat at the back of the courtroom in one of the boxed-off VIP and observer areas. He hinted, during a short recess, that the trial's real success was bringing Libya, that one-time rogue state and haven for the West's bogeymen, in from the cold, opening the way for lots of rich oil investment in his country by the UK and USA.

 "Without question, this trial has significantly improved relations between my country and yours - and America," said El Houden. "I do not envisage these relations deteriorating again. One should also say that there has been nothing said in this court that confirms that my country had anything to do with the bombing. I have every confidence in this court in recognising that fact."

 The ambassador's comments could not come at a worse time for the victims' families. Take Josh Hilbert from Pennsylvania. His father, Rodney, was blown to bits over Lockerbie, and he is convinced that Libya is behind the bombing.

 He tells you that just coming to the court has been a kind of catharsis, that seeing the men in the dock has given him a little "closure", but without a guilty verdict he will be back to the same lost place he found himself on the night of December 21, 1988, when his dad died on his way back home from a European business trip.

 "I can't help but feel there is something of a show trial about all this," he says over a coffee in the cafe attached to the court and prison, which was built specially to hold the two Libyans while on remand. "If these men walk, you have to ask whether or not they should have been here in the first place.

"If true justice was being done, we would have the men who ordered the bombing on trial. These two men didn't order any bombing. The illusion of justice is what is important here. The British and American authorities hope that by just having this trial the families will shut up. But terrorism isn't about two men. There is something terribly tragic and futile about all this."

 The fear is that if the relatives of the dead do not get the verdict they want they will need a whipping boy on whom to vent their anger - and that whipping boy comes in the shape of Scottish justice. For those who believe the Libyans did it - and that is nearly all the American families - Scottish justice will be seen as failing them, of being inadequate and cowardly, if Megrahi and Fhimah walk free from court. The fall-out will be even worse should the not proven verdict be called into play. In that case the US families will say that the law in Scotland is indeed an ass. In their eyes the country will have spent tens of millions of pounds on this case in order to reach no conclusion.

 Families like the Cohens are already beginning to sharpen their knives for the assault on Scots law. Dan and Susan Cohen, who lost their young daughter Theo in the bombing, are starting to remind those who will listen that America helped finance the trial. They have also begun claiming that Britain was without the money or investigative ability to either stage such a murder inquiry or prosecute the case.

 There are rumours that some deal has been done to make sure that more of the American relatives have plenty of time to make it to Holland for the verdict. The Crown Office categorically denies such claims, but the speculation won't die.

 Professor Bob Black, one of Scotland's best legal minds and the architect of the Lockerbie trial, says: "It would be outrageous if the needs of the relatives were put before the interests of the two men on trial for this crime. They must not be kept in jail a single second more than is necessary." The Cohens, however, cannot even begin to understand this opinion. "America lost the most people on board that plane. The USA helped pay for it - of course they should wait until we get there," says Susan.

 The Office of Victims of Crime, an arm of the US Department of Justice, has already made overtures to the Crown requesting some delay between the end of the trial and the verdict to allow families to reach Holland. The OVC is also embroiled in the less-than-sensible tactic of briefing the US families that everything is going just fine with the trial - that the prosecution is working wonders and the trial really couldn't be better.

 If things don't go to plan for the US families, the OVC has been little more than cruelly building up their hopes before a fall. Bob Black says: "If we do get a not guilty verdict, the outburst of fury from the US families will be spectacular - but their pain will have been made worse if the Department of Justice is currently preparing them for success."

Many of Scotland's best lawyers are already saying that if a guilty verdict does come in then there is no way it will stand up under appeal. This is fuelling the guessing game. Some reckon that the chance of the appeal succeeding will play heavily on the judges' minds. No judge wants their finding overturned in the appeal court.

 Perhaps one indicator of whether this tortuous case will reach a guilty or not guilty verdict comes from a man with so much to lose - Megrahi's brother, Mohammed. There is something of an acceptance around the court that Fhimah will be freed, as little of substance has been said about him at all throughout the trial, but no-one is making a firm call on Megrahi.

 Last May, his brother Mohammed was a nervous wreck. As he smoked tar-packed Arabian cigarette after cigarette, he constantly wiped tears from his eyes. There was a real and desperate fear in him that his baby brother - as he calls Megrahi - was going to go to jail in Scotland forever. This time around, he is not so despondent. "There is a God in the world, and God is just. Justice is part of God," he says. "Only the devil can now keep my brother in jail. I see in my mind's eye a month from now, my brother beside me and both of us beside our mother. That will be justice - and I know it is coming."