Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 February 2002
Issue No.573
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Maltese connection under scrutiny

Both the prosecution and the defence are feeling heat as a Scottish court allows new testimony in the Lockerbie trial, reports Judit Neurink from Camp Zeist

At the special Scottish court set up at Camp Zeist, in the Netherlands, where the appeal of a Libyan convicted of planting a bomb on the PanAm airliner that exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie is being heard, the mood shifted considerably after defence attorney William Taylor finished his plea last Monday.

Crown advocates Alan Turnbull and Alistair Campbell took over, but soon found themselves being scrupulously questioned by the judges. It was an unusual occurrence, as the six-man team of judges -- who replace the jury that normally sits on Scottish courts -- are usually more mild in putting forward their questions. Even more unusual, it was not just Lord Cullen, who heads the panel of judges, who was firing questions at the prosecution, but almost all of his five colleagues did likewise.

Lord Osborne, who is one of the trial judges, set the tone by suggesting that the bomb which brought down the PanAm plane may not have been loaded on a connecting flight in Malta -- a statement contrary to the conclusion of the judges from the earlier trial. The Malta link is essential for the prosecution's case, as it is the only link to the involvement in the bombing of Libyan national Abdel-Basset Al-Megrahi. Al- Megrahi was convicted last year and sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1988 bombing, in which 270 people were killed. Last month, his lawyers began an appeal challenging the verdict of the judges in the original trial.

Lord Osborne accepted there was evidence showing that Al-Megrahi had worked for the Libyan secret service in Malta, and that he had bought clothes there. But, he said, "It is quite difficult, rationally, to follow how the court took the steps it did in saying we don't know how it [the bomb] got on to the flight, but it must have been there." The judge also questioned the route the prosecution claims the suitcase bomb followed: from Malta to Frankfurt, to London, and, from there, to the PanAm plane. "Wasn't the terrorist more likely to draw up a plan which minimised the risk of flights being delayed, or the suitcase getting lost in the system?" Osborne asked.

Osborne's colleague, Lord Kirkwood, then turned to statements by the witness for the prosecution, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who testified that Al-Megrahi had been to his shop. Kirkwood questioned discrepancies in Gauci's statements about the age and height of the man who bought the clothes that were in the suitcase with the bomb. And he made clear he could not understand how the judges in the earlier trial had accepted Gauci's statement that Al-Megrahi "looked a lot like" the man who purchased the clothes, as a positive identification.

From these questions, it was already apparent the judges would accept a request by the defence to hear the testimony of a former security guard at London's Heathrow airport, as well as that of his superior officer. Both say they have evidence of a break-in in the baggage area a few hours before the doomed flight took off in December 1988. This would mean that the bomb could have been brought aboard in London, which would further eliminate Malta as the only possible answer to the question of where the bomb was introduced. The prosecution then submitted a list of 11 other witnesses they wanted to hear to challenge this evidence. The judges ordered the prosecution and the defence to discuss this list together and make a new proposition to the court.

Despite the success of the defence team in clinching the admittance of this crucial new evidence, the team has generally been criticised by observers at Camp Zeist. Some argue that the performance of defence attorney William Taylor has been uninspiring and rather tedious, while others are less subtle, comparing it to "watching paint dry." The Libyans also are equally weary. Sources close to the defence say that last week Al-Megrahi and his Libyan lawyers were on the brink of sacking Taylor and his compatriot Alistair Duff. Al- Megrahi and his legal team are dissatisfied with the fact that the Scotsmen did not make use of disclosures in the British press that Tony Gauci had been rewarded for his statements by the Scottish police with luxurious holidays to Scotland.

The Libyans are also angry the Scottish defence team has been refusing any advice from outside. Ibrahim Legwell, the new head of the Libyan consortium of jurists that employs the Scottish solicitors, has called for the help of jurists from all over the world. Some famous American lawyers are on Legwell's list: Frank Rubino, who defended the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, Plato Cacheris; and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who acted for O J Simpson. But as Taylor and Duff refuse to meet or deal with these advisers, it looks as if the expensive and probably useful advice the Libyans are paying for will simply be ignored.

The Americans are also working from behind the scenes. The presence of jurist Dana Biehl, who works for the American Justice Department, behind the prosecution table at the court is not new. Al-Megrahi, voicing his defence team's concerns, has complained of the American influence on the trial. Even after criticism by UN observers in the earlier trial, Biehl is back at his place, positioned near the glass wall dividing the court from the public gallery.

Although the prosecution is free to pick whoever it wants for its team, Biehl's presence has indeed brought attention back to the question of American influence on the trial, which many people consider politically motivated.

In the original trial, the American secret service, the CIA, refused to hand over essential information that branded a main witness as unreliable. Another theory suggests that the Americans are scapegoating the Libyans for a crime committed by Ahmed Jibril's Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). The PFLP-GC is also believed to have received help from Iran. This theory is gaining more support, even amongst the relatives of the Lockerbie victims. It is even strengthened by Biehl's presence among the prosecution team.

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