Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 March 2002
Issue No.578
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A spectacular miscarriage

The integrity of the Lockerbie trial is under question following the denial of Abdel-Basset Al-Megrahi's appeal against his life sentence. Judit Neurink reports from Camp Zeist

Convicted Al-Megrahi as he listens to the verdict (photo: AP)
Last week, the appeal against the Lockerbie verdict ended in the Netherlands. As the condemned Libyan bomber's wife wailed, applause rose from the relatives of the victims.

After two years of expensive trials it seems the only people satisfied are the victims' families and the Scottish Crown. The rejection of Al-Megrahi's appeal by five Scottish judges was heralded by the relatives as "a victory for Scottish justice." The defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment last year for the murder of 270 people in 1988. But both Scottish and Arab jurists described the decision as "a bad day" for Scottish justice.

Presiding judge Lord Cullen took only two minutes to announce the verdict last Thursday. Alluding to the 200 -page judgement published on the Internet, he said, "We have concluded that none of the grounds of appeal is well-founded. Accordingly the appeal is refused.'' Al-Megrahi looked dazed in his long, white Libyan robes and red fez. His wife Aissa, dressed in black with a black scarf, burst into loud sobs and had to be supported as she left the public gallery.

The five judges were unanimous in their conclusion. They upheld that Al-Megrahi was a Libyan agent in Malta in 1988 and that he was responsible for blowing up the PanAm Boeing in December of that year. They rejected the new evidence submitted by the defence, that on the day of the crash, a door leading to the baggage loading area at Heathrow Airport was broken open. The defence suggested, therefore, that the bomb could have been brought aboard the flight in London, rather than in Malta.

Arab legal experts in Camp Zeist were incensed by the verdict. Whilst Libyan lawyers spoke of a trial that is politically motivated, Saber Ammar of the Arab Lawyers' Union criticised "the influence of politicians and the press on the judges." Chairman Bechir Essid of the Tunisian Bar Association said he was disillusioned with the Western judicial system. "How can you sentence someone without any proof? This is abuse of justice.,' he said.'

The United Nations' observer, Hans Kchler, an Austrian professor of Jurisprudence, was alarmed by the decision. He described the appeal as "a rather spectacular miscarriage of justice." He was lost as to how a unanimous decision was reached "in the light of some of the analysis presented and questions asked by the judges."

Kchler's objections to the trial procedure are well documented. After the original verdict, his report argued that the trial "was not fair and not conducted in an objective manner." He then argued that "a political element" had been introduced to the courtroom by the inclusion of US state prosecutors in the prosecution team. He concluded "that foreign governments or (secret) governmental agencies may have been allowed, albeit indirectly, to determine, to a considerable extent, which evidence was made available to the court.'' It has been suggested that the trial was a politically driven cover-up to keep other suspects, Iran, Syria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), out of the limelight.

The UN observer also believes the defence lawyers failed Al-Megrahi. "He had no chance to give them any instructions." Kchler even suggests the defence team was in cahoots with the prosecution. Robert Black, a professor of Scottish Law and one of the architects of the trial, agrees with some of Kchler's criticisms. It was Black who ended years of arguments between Libya, the USA and Britain by suggesting the trial of the two Libyan suspects under Scottish law in a neutral country.

Black now questions "some of the tactical decisions" of the defence. He was surprised the Libyan's lawyers did not protest about the expensive holidays provided by the Scottish police in exchange for the testimony of Tony Gauci, a Crown witness. Black was also concerned about the defence's failure to mention the statement of an ex-CIA agent claiming that Iran paid a Palestinian group for the Lockerbie bombing.

But Black, who worked as a part-time judge himself for 15 years, is particularly critical of the original trial judges. He believes it was wrong to pass a life sentence on Al-Megrahi based on weak and circumstantial evidence. "I think it was a fair trial. All the procedures worked fairly well. But the judges made a wrong decision. It seems there are also rogue judges."

The appeal verdict keeps Black on the case. "I would have been relieved if I could bow out after more than 10 years. But now I will have to continue giving advice in the right quarters," he said. To whom, he will not say, but it is fair to assume he will be talking to the Libyan and the British governments. Al-Megrahi, who has been transferred from Camp Zeist to Barlinnie jail in Scotland, can still ask the Privy Council, Britain's highest appeal commission, to re-examine his case under the European Convention on Human Rights. If that fails, the European Court in Strasbourg can be approached. Finally, the defendant can also turn to a special (British) Review Commission, which has recently quashed sentences passed on suspected IRA bombers.

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