Thursday, 14 January 2016

Upbeat assessment of Lockerbie trial prospects

[What follows is the text of a report published in The Guardian on this date in 1999:]

Two Libyans wanted for the Lockerbie bombing will be handed over for trial within weeks, a South African envoy predicted last night after Britain piled on the pressure.

'We have a feeling we are pretty close to a solution,' Jakes Gerwel, President Nelson Mandela's emissary, said after talks with Colonel Muammar Gadafy. 'We would hope that it is not a matter of months but weeks.'

Mr Gerwel, joined by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, said problems still remained, especially over the question of where the suspects would be imprisoned if convicted. But his upbeat assessment gave new hope that a trial would go ahead.

Earlier Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, used a visit to the site of a proposed trial in the Netherlands to urge Col Gadafy to surrender Abdel-Basset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who are accused of bringing down Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 people, in December 1988.

As Tripoli reported 'headway' in talks with the emissaries from Pretoria and Riyadh, Mr Cook, seeking to assuage Libyan fears of an Anglo-American trick, said United Nations sanctions against Libya would be suspended the moment the two alleged intelligence agents landed in the Netherlands as 'a first step towards permanently lifting sanctions'.

And, as part of an effort to convince Col Gadafy that the damage to his regime can be limited and that senior security chiefs will not be implicated, he said explicitly that under Scottish law the men would have the right to refuse to be interviewed by police or intelligence agencies.

'We have no reason and no intention of interviewing the suspects on any other issue,' Mr Cook insisted. 'We have no hidden agenda.' Speaking after touring Camp Zeist, a former Dutch and Nato air force base being converted for the trial, Mr Cook elaborated on his message in an interview with MBC, an Arabic-language television channel seen all over the Middle East. 'It is a criminal court and it is not possible for it to start investigating regimes,' he said. 'These are the only individuals we are accusing.'

Expectations of a handover have risen and fallen since last August when London and Washington dropped their demand for a trial in Scotland or the United States.

Last month the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, reported progress but no breakthrough. Hopes rose when the Libyan General People's Congress approved a trial, but fell when Col Gadafy again demanded an international tribunal.

Reports from Tripoli yesterday said that Prince Bandar and Mr Gerwel had agreed what were described as 'important practical step... toward solving this case'.

Libya's Jana news agency, citing a Libyan foreign ministry official, reported 'major headway' in the efforts to resolve the impasse.

Libya has insisted that the men, if convicted, must serve their prison sentences in a third country, but Britain says only Scotland is acceptable. Prince Bandar, quoted in the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, denied suggestions that he was carrying proposals to jail them in Saudi prisons if convicted.

'We are close to a solution on lifting an embargo on our Libyan brothers,' Prince Bandar said. 'We can say we are in the final stages.'

'We feel we are close to a solution. We hope that it is a matter of weeks.'

[RB: Megrahi and Fhimah arrived at Zeist for trial less than three months later, on 5 April 1999.]

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