Monday, 8 December 2014

The convoluted route towards Zeist

[What follows is a Reuters news agency report issued on 8 December 1998:]

The Netherlands on Tuesday pressed ahead with work to prepare a swatch of British soil on Dutch territory for the anticipated trial of two Libyans accused of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland 10 years ago.

The Dutch chose the windswept military base of Camp Zeist, 10 km (six miles) from the central city of Utrecht, as the venue for the unique trial, which will be conducted under Scottish law on British soil. A special Anglo-Dutch treaty signed in August permits the transfer of the land. Some 2,400 km (1,500 miles) away in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, the General People's Congress, Libya's top legislative body, began meeting on Tuesday.

It is the forum, convened once or twice a year for several days, which will formally endorse any decision by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to surrender Abdel Basset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah to stand trial for the bombing. Camp Zeist's previous claim to fame was that Napoleon once stopped there for the night. German troops occupied the site during World War Two and the US Air Force was stationed there for 40 years until the end of the Cold War with the then Soviet Union in 1991.

If Libya agrees to surrender the two men for trial, the suspects will be housed in a bomb-proof underground complex beneath an American-built hospital. Their transport vehicles will sweep into a covered driveway created for casualties arriving at the emergency department. A barbed-wire fence is all that now keeps unwanted visitors out of Camp Zeist. The hospital is built on a small mound behind a two-metre (six-foot) high wall.

The US and Britain are believed to be stumping up between $100 million and $200 million to pay for the camp's conversion to accommodate several hundred people. Security guards, military personnel, the press and relatives of those that died are all expected to descend en masse on the 10-hectare (25-acre) base. For the present, security is thin-- a white portable cabin manned by a few police officers is the precursor to a much grander operation should the trial go ahead.

So far activity at the site has been low-key. People living nearby say construction work has been kept to a minimum and a thin line of smoke, perhaps from the kitchen, is the only hint of life behind the shuttered windows of the concrete hospital. Behind it, a blue-painted corrugated steel building that was once a sports hall will house the media, officials said.

[Here is what I have written in an as yet unpublished manuscript about this stage in the convoluted route towards a Lockerbie trial:]

It was we [Dr Jim Swire and I, on 21 September 1998] who had to inform the Libyan government that the chosen location in the Netherlands for trial was Kamp van Zeist, a former NATO base to which the air force of the United States still had extant treaty rights of access.  This information was faxed to me (in Dutch, which I can read  -- with difficulty -- through my knowledge of Afrikaans) at my hotel in Tripoli by a Dutch journalist who had developed an interest in Lockerbie and who had heard it from an official at The Hague.  Dr Swire and I discussed whether we should inform our Libyan government contacts of the intended venue and came to the conclusion that we should do so.  One compelling reason for doing so was to preserve the trust that the Libyan government appeared to have developed in us.  Another was our assumption – which may or may not have been justified -- that all our communications in Libya were monitored and that the Libyan authorities would have the information anyway as soon as they could arrange for a copy of the fax to be translated from Dutch into Arabic.

I anticipated that the news about the proposed location would cause the Libyans to renounce the "neutral venue" concept in high dudgeon and complain of the lack of good faith demonstrated by the British Government in selecting, or agreeing to, such a site.  But they did not do so.  When we raised the issue at our next meeting, the Libyan officials were remarkably relaxed about the matter.  This, more than anything else, convinced me that the Libyan government and the Libyan defence lawyers genuinely wished a trial to take place and that the concerns they had expressed regarding details of the scheme now on offer were genuine concerns, not merely a colourable pretext for evading their earlier commitment to such a solution. (...)

I returned to the UK after this visit to Libya reasonably confident that a trial would take place.  It was clear to me that the Libyan authorities at the highest level wanted it to happen and that the accused men wanted their families and themselves to be able to get on with their lives, something that could never happen, even within the boundaries of Libya, while the charges against them remained unresolved and UN sanctions remained in place.  One possible impediment was the hard-line attitude towards surrender for trial overseas that had been taken over the years by the Libyan People’s Congress (the highest legislative and policy-making body under Libya’s idiosyncratic constitution).  However, this potential hurdle was removed on 15 December 2008 when the People’s Congress, at a session held in Sirte, announced that it approved the trial proposal and adjured all three interested governments -- Libya, the United Kingdom and the United States -- to take all necessary steps to remove any remaining obstacles.

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