Monday, 2 February 2015

Not Guilty pleas entered by Megrahi and Fhimah

[What follows is the text of a report from The Associated Press news agency published on this date fifteen years ago:]

The two Libyan defendants charged in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, pleaded innocent today at a pretrial hearing in the Scottish High Court. Although the trial is scheduled to begin May 3 at a former US air base in the Netherlands, the pretrial session was held in Edinburgh because the defendants did not express a desire to be present.

"In the absence of my client, I formally enter a plea of not guilty to the indictments," said defense attorney Bill Taylor, representing defendant Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Attorney Richard Keen entered an innocent plea on behalf of co-defendant Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. The pleas, which had been expected at a later stage, were a surprise ending at a one-hour hearing held to resolve a disagreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers on measures to conceal the identities of sensitive witnesses. The two sides agreed that the measures would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Both sides also said they were ready to begin the trial on May 3, following several postponements since the suspects last April were handed over by Libya for trial in the Netherlands.

Out of court negotiations between prosecutors and the defense team have resulted in agreements on evidence that may shorten the length of the trial, previously estimated at one year. "Good progress is being made as to the agreement of noncontroversial evidence," said Taylor. As a result, he expected that hundreds of witnesses would not have to appear to give testimony. Last month, the Scotland on Sunday newspaper reported that the prosecution's star witness had watered down his testimony that he saw Al-Megrahi placing a suspicious suitcase on the luggage carousel at Malta airport, where both of them worked. That suitcase allegedly made its way to Frankfurt and then London, where prosecutors say it was placed aboard the Pan Am airliner.

When defense attorneys recently interviewed the witness, identified as Libyan defector Abu Maged Jiacha [RB: normally written Abdul Majid Giaka], in the United States, he said he saw someone who looked like Al-Megrahi take the suitcase off the carousel, according to the newspaper report. The reported change was seen as a setback to the prosecution case. At a pretrial hearing in December in the Netherlands, prosecutors had requested permission to have witnesses appear in disguises. They argued that identification by the public would jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of the witnesses. Many among the more than 1,000 prosecution witnesses are present or former employees of US and European intelligence agencies.

According to several legal sources and media reports, Jiacha wore a blond lady's wig and heavy makeup during the encounter with defense lawyers, held in the back of a van traveling through suburban Washington. Today's hearing was told by Bill Taylor QC, for Megrahi, that the trial courtroom will be divided in two by a glass screen, with the public on one side and the well of the court on the other. Blinds would be raised, covering about half the glass, preventing the public from seeing the witnesses, he said.

Detailing the revised Crown request on the identity of witnesses, the Solicitor General said the judge had already ruled out elaborate methods of disguise such as masks. He said the judge had made clear it was always open to a witness to alter his appearance by methods like growing a beard or changing his hair style, and the issues could to be dealt with on a witness-by-witness basis. "The purpose ... is to prevent the identity of the witnesses travelling further than the well of the court," he said. Mr Boyd said former East German security service members had indicated "reluctance - in one case extreme reluctance" to come to court if their true identities were revealed.

The Crown (prosecution) also revealed that it would not seek to determine where in the Camp Zeist courtroom observers appointed by the UN should sit. Mr Boyd said the Crown would not seek to prevent UN observers at the trial from having the same view of witnesses as was visible to the two accused men.

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