Lockerbie: The Trial Begins

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In Bruegel's famous painting the Fall of Icarus, the farmer goes on plowing, oblivious and unmoved, as high-flying Icarus falls out of the sky. It doesn't happen like that with a jumbo jet. Last week in the Netherlands an inquiry began on precisely how the normal shattered into the catastrophic just after 7 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1988, when Pan American flight 103 blew apart in mid air and rained fire, debris and bodies onto the town of Lockerbie, Scotland.

After one of the most extensive investigations ever into a terrorist incident, the trial has begun of two alleged members of the Libyan Intelligence Services, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. They face charges of murder and conspiracy to murder for the death of 270 people, including 11 residents of Lockerbie. The dimension of the disaster was illustrated when, to the sniffles and quiet weeping of family members in the courtroom, it took a prosecution lawyer an hour merely to read out the names and addresses of the dead.

Just getting the trial under way was an ordeal in itself. Libya insisted it be held outside Scotland; the U.K. and the U.S. insisted on Scotland's jurisdictional rights. In the end a U.N.-brokered compromise enabled the trial to be held at Camp Zeist, a former nato air base east of Utrecht, which has been declared Scottish territory for the duration of the proceedings. A former school on the site has been transformed into a high-tech courtroom where, at Libya's insistence, three Scottish judges (and a non-voting alternate) are hearing the case without a jury; a majority of two will be sufficient for a verdict. Although the proceedings are expected to last a year and involve some 1,125 prosecution witnesses, it was quickly clear that the Scottish defense lawyers will try to return to the U.S. investigators' original suspicions that the perpetrators were not the Libyan defendants but Syrian-backed Palestinian saboteurs.

The prosecution charges that Pan Am 103's destruction was the work of a conspiracy involving Megrahi, head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, and Fhimah, the airline's station chief in Malta. They are accused of commissioning a Swiss company to make electronic timers, one of which was attached to plastic explosives and hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player. The resulting time bomb ended up along with clothing bought in Malta, concealed in a brown Samsonite suitcase, tagged with stolen Malta Air luggage tags and placed aboard a Malta Air flight to Frankfurt. The case was transferred to Pan Am's Frankfurt-London-New York flight, two-thirds of whose passengers were Americans returning home for the Christmas holidays.

In line with Scottish procedure, the trial began not with grandiloquent opening statements, but with witness testimony, in this case the air traffic controllers who had guided Clipper 103's course from London's Heathrow Airport. Along with several dozen other family members of victims, Bert Ammerman, a New Jersey high school principal whose younger brother Tom was on board flight 103, sat behind a bullet-proof glass barrier separating the courtroom from the gallery. Listening to that technical testimony "was like being on death row waiting for the execution," he said. "I was imagining Tom nursing a scotch and soda, settling back relieved that he'd be seeing his daughters in six hours or so ... and then being blown out of the air."

The testimony became even more harrowing when residents of Lockerbie took the stand to describe the horror as a plummeting jet engine obliterated houses with a massive explosion and whole neighborhoods were deluged with burning fuel, plane parts and bodies. Bricklayer Stuart Kirkpatrick was with his family getting ready to watch This is Your Life on television when he saw a fireball through the living room window. At the bottom of his front steps lay the body of a young woman. In Lockerbie, he testified, "there were solemn faces and no smiles for a long, long time."

The burden has never lifted for the victims' families, who have widely divergent views of the trial. For Ammerman, its long-awaited opening represents a partial victory for the families, which he says U.S. government officials claimed he would never see. "This process is valid, and it's the best opportunity we'll ever get to hear the evidence," he says. But Bruce Smith, a former Pan Am pilot whose wife died on flight 103, takes scant solace from the trial in Zeist. "In Nuremberg we tried generals, not privates," he says. "This is a show trial, intended to rehabilitate the Libyan government."

Under Scottish law, one defense is that of "incrimination," meaning pointing the finger at someone else who may have committed the crime. To employ this defense, the court must be notified in advance. The Libyans' lawyers told the court they might implicate members of the obscure Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, one of whom, Mohammed Abu Talb, is serving a jail sentence in Sweden on terrorism charges and was considered an early suspect in the Lockerbie case. The defense also gave notice that they might try to finger the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. When German police broke up the cell of that group just two months before Pan Am 103 went down, they found Toshiba cassette-players modified to hold bombs, similar to the one found in flight 103's wreckage.

The defense doesn't have to prove the involvement of anyone else, just sow a reasonable doubt in the minds of the judges about the guilt of the defendants. The judges could be encouraged in such doubts by the fact that at least one of the prosecution's important witnesses has revised his evidence. Edwin Bollier, who owns a telecommunications company, Mebo Ltd., in Zurich, says an fbi agent in 1990 showed him pictures of what was said to be a fingernail-sized fragment of a timer found in a shirt in the Scottish woods almost six months after Pan Am 103 went down. Bollier told the fbi then that the fragment was similar to 20 prototype timers he had made for the Libyan Army in 1985 and 1986. But after finally seeing the actual fragment last September, he says it is not the same fragment he was shown a picture of, and his company didn't make it. Says Bollier: "It is very important for us to show in court that we have nothing to do with this fragment." The prosecution could seek to neutralize the effect of Bollier's testimony by pointing out that he has done business with Libya for decades, as he himself acknowledges.

As Scottish police took the stand at Camp Zeist, the defense cross-examined them closely about the rapid appearance on the scene of American FBI and CIA agents. Their questioning seemed directed toward suggesting that American intelligence agents would have been in a position to pursue their own agenda perhaps removing evidence, or planting it during the investigation of the crash. Says John P. Grant, a University of Glasgow law professor and commentator on the Lockerbie trial: "The defense is trying to raise the specter of skulduggery on the part of someone, and obviously the finger is pointed at the United States."

It will be weeks if not months before evidence allegedly linking the bomb to the defendants is pursued in court. Neither the prosecution nor the defense is talking to the press.

Mohammed Ali Al Megrahi, a former Libyan army officer and the older brother of one of the defendants, is convinced justice will be served. "God is everywhere in the universe, so justice should be, too," he says. Many of the families of the victims, having lost the irreplaceable, are convinced that even a conviction of Megrahi and Fhimah will fall short of the justice they seek. But at the very least, they will know finally that their loss has not passed unnoticed.