Sunday, 3 May 2015

The beginning of the Camp Zeist fiasco

[On this date fifteen years ago, the trial of Abdelbaset Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah started at Camp Zeist. What follows is an excerpt from an Associated Press news agency report published that day:]

The trial of two alleged Libyan intelligence agents accused of blowing Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 opened today before three Scottish judges at a special court on this former US air base.

A Scottish High Court judge, Lord Ranald Sutherland, opened the proceedings against defendants Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who surrendered for trial last year following nearly a decade of sanctions against Libya.

Members of the court rose as the judges, wearing white wigs and dressed in flowing ivory robes with embroidered red crosses, were led into the chamber by a sentry bearing a silver mace, the ceremonial staff symbolizing authority in Scottish courts.

The three judges and one reserve judge took their seats on the bench underneath a Scottish royal crest bearing the Latin words: “Nemo me impune lacessit,” which literally means “None dare meddle with me.”

“It is time for justice. We want to hold the government responsible, not these guys,” said Bruce Smith, an American whose British wife, Ingrid, was killed in the crash. “I am convinced that they have a good case against the Libyan government. This should be the start, not the end.”

The trial began with the defendants and lawyers identifying themselves for the judges.

The sleek, state-of-the-art courtroom, built over the past year at a cost of $18 million to British taxpayers, provides computer monitors for all judges, lawyers, defendants, and clerks to view exhibits and follow the court transcript in real time.

Wireless headphones receiving signals from infrared transmitters were available for the defendants to listen to the proceedings via simultaneous translation in Arabic.

For more than 11 years, investigators of the world's worst airliner bombing pursued a trail of evidence across Europe and the Mediterranean to the defendants.

The proceedings, expected to last about a year, follow the largest international murder probe on record, with investigators interviewing 15,000 witnesses in more than 20 countries and sifting through 180,000 pieces of evidence since the midair blast. (...)

Camp Zeist, an old US air base 40 miles southeast of Amsterdam, has been declared Scottish sovereign territory for the duration of the trial.

It was chosen as the venue in a UN-brokered compromise following years of sanctions aimed at forcing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to hand over the suspects, who were indicted in November 1991.

More than 30 American victims' relatives were getting front-row seats in the public gallery, separated from the court by bulletproof glass. Many other family members could watch via closed-circuit television linkups to sites in Washington, New York, London and Dumfries, Scotland.

For the relatives, the long-awaited start of the trial elicited mixed emotions. It marked a milestone in their crusade for justice for the deaths of their loved ones. But it also raised doubts whether those truly responsible for the crime will be punished.

“I feel a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment that we pursued it long enough and hard enough,” said Maddy Shapiro, of Stamford, Conn, whose daughter Amy was on Flight 103.

Nevertheless, she expressed concern that even if the men are found guilty, “whatever higher-ups gave the orders” won't be pursued.

“The people who are really responsible are who we are after,” said Kathleen Flynn of Montville, NJ, whose son, John Patrick Flynn, was among the victims.

Relatives believe the bombing plot involved senior figures in the Libyan government as well as other terrorist organizations.

They have also voiced worry over reports that the prosecution case suffered setbacks as a result of contradictory witness statements and inconsistencies in the evidence against the Libyans.

Prosecutors allege that the defendants planted the suitcase rigged with a plastic explosive onto a flight from the Mediterranean island of Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred as unaccompanied luggage onto a feeder flight connecting with Pan Am 103 at Heathrow.

According to Scottish legal experts, the prosecution has no eyewitness who can establish incontrovertibly that the defendants planted a suitcase bomb aboard the doomed airliner.

[Contemporaneous reports on the BBC News website can be read here and here; and the detailed report on The Pan Am 103 Crash Website can be read here.

A diary entry by Dr Jim Swire reads as follows:]

Neither of us [Dr Swire and his wife, Jane] slept last night. Today is the first day of the trial and we both tossed and turned, thinking about Flora. I am acutely aware that I have been on the verge of obsession for a long time. When Flora died, I was engulfed in raw pain. But that has turned to determination for justice. I worry about the effect on my family. I have put such pressure on Jane and yet she has shown such strength. I worry, too, about my children, Catherine and William. They loved their sister dearly but there must be times when they have felt frustrated that the family's focus is forever on Flora. Times when they have wanted to scream: "We are still here." But I know they are with me.

It is stiflingly hot, 77F. We had both brought warm clothes but thankfully Jane has found some short-sleeved shirts. We hold hands as we walk into court. Jane tells me later that she was struck by how the defendants have aged. They are greyer, more gaunt. She says she had an overwhelming desire to walk over, bend down and quietly ask: "Did you do it? Did you take Flora from me?"

She is constantly plagued by thoughts of Flora's last moments. Those 30 seconds it took to fall to earth. She has counted them out many times in the kitchen of our home. She cannot get over not being with her firstborn when Flora needed her most.

I gaze at the defendants. Did they do it? I don't know. I have chosen my seat with care - directly behind the witness stand so that the judges are reminded that I am here. I am utterly taken aback when a special defence is launched. The defendants have cited two organisations and 10 individuals whom they say were responsible for the bomb. I had thought that the trial would cut through the conspiracy theories.

I listen to the details of how the bomb was allegedly planted. Again, I wonder if Flora is proud of me. I have prevented your death becoming a mere statistic, I tell her. I think of the last time I saw her. I insisted on seeing her body. I touched the little mole on her toe and cut a lock of her hair. But she was so lifeless. I think of how she would be now had she lived. A glittering career, babies. Anger wells and I clasp Jane's hand.

Outside the court, there is a round of quick-fire questions from reporters. I sat up late last night learning a statement but my bottle goes and I read it instead. I am grateful for their intelligent and gentle questions.

When we get home we eat scrambled eggs and fall onto our mattress from exhaustion. We knew today would be tough. There will be a whole year of this for me.

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