Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Libya crushes hopes of Lockerbie bombing trial

[This is the headline over a report published in The Guardian on this date in 1999. It reads as follows:]

Hopes for a handover of the Lockerbie bombing suspects faded yesterday after Libya insisted that, if convicted in a Western court over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland, the two men would have to serve any prison sentence in their own country and not in Scotland, as Britain and the United States demand.

In what sounded like the definitive word on a crucial issue, Libya's foreign minister, Omar al-Muntasser, said there was 'no alternative' to imprisonment in Libya.

With Washington pressing for stronger economic sanctions against Libya over the Lockerbie affair - which took 270 lives in the worst case of terrorism in contemporary British history - the blunt statement could mean the collapse of months of delicate international negotiations.

Mr Muntasser was reacting to a declaration by Robin Cook, Britain's Foreign Secretary, that there was 'no alternative' to the two accused being imprisoned in Scotland if found guilty in a trial in the Netherlands.

The Libyan minister's unequivocal public remarks are highly significant because he has been seen in the past as a moderate who was privately ready to accept the British and American conditions for finally bringing to justice the Libyan intelligence officers alleged to be the bombers - Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

'There is no alternative to serving any sentence in Libya,' he said flatly. 'If we were to accept that they be jailed in Scotland, we would have accepted such a trial years ago.'

Only last week Mr Muntasser had given the impression that agreement on a handover was 'very close', in talks in Tripoli with Lord Steel, the Liberal Democrat peer, and Sir Cyril Townsend, chairman of the Council for Arab-British understanding.

'I discussed all the options with Mr Muntasser and he did not say this,' Lord Steel said yesterday. 'This is why people despair of negotiations with the Libyans, because they keep giving these contradictory statements.'

Sir Cyril said: 'We came away with the impression that it was more likely than not that the two would be handed over for a trial.'

It was only six months ago that Britain and the US agreed to a third-country trial. They did so because they recognised that the sanctions were being eroded - especially by African and Arab states, some of whom have secretly been receiving Libyan cash support or cheap oil.

Britain argues that having long demanded a trial in a third country, Colonel Muammar Gadafy, Libya's leader, should now send his men to the Netherlands.

Both sides now say that Tripoli has accepted that the United Nations sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992 would be effectively 'lifted' as soon as the suspects were extradited to the Netherlands, where a former Nato air base near Utrecht is being prepared for a trial.

[RB: The two suspects surrendered for trial at Camp Zeist on 5 April 1999, less than two months later. Reading between the lines of Libyan officials’ Lockerbie statements was a talent that was greatly under-developed in British journalists.]

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