Monday, 10 April 2017

The waiting game of Lockerbie

[This is the headline over an article that appeared in the Melbourne newspaper The Age on this date in 1999. The following are excerpts:]

The Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands will be neither brisk nor easy for lawyers or the accused, writes Sonia Harford.

The accused wear their own clothes and receive visitors. Part of the bustle in and out of the camp gates is catering staff who provide meals in strict accordance with the Libyans' Muslim requirements. A prayer room has also been provided with a compass indicating the direction of Mecca.

Up the road in Soesterberg proper, the Dutch locals are characteristically phlegmatic. They notice and quite enjoy the barrage of media passing through, but become more enthusiastic when remarking on how the presence of the Scots will boost local business.

The Americans abandoned Camp Zeist four years ago, and with them went many guilders spent in the town on food and other supplies. "The Americans bought lots of fruit," said Toft the Groenteman (vegetableman) from his fruit and , vegetable shop in Rademakerstraat. "When they were here, everyone from the petrol station to McDonald's benefited."

Bartender Rob Westra, having an off-duty beer at the Het Wapen van Soesterberg bar, had a different form of self-interest. "You have to be careful with the drinking now, because the whole village is full of police."

About 100 Scottish prison service staff and police are assigned to guard the camp at any given time, housed in dormitories inside the gates. When the trial begins, the converted buildings will also house legal teams and witnesses.

Anyone expecting an air of menace at the prison compound will be disarmed by the site's tranquility. Local residents walk or cycle past, just metres from the camp gates. And, nearby, visitors continue to arrive at the aviation museum, a popular collection of old planes and jets dotted around the flat ground.

Depending on their cell's location, it's not impossible that the two Libyan suspects could hear the chatter and laughter of children playing outside the prison grounds.

The detention of the two men comes after a decade of US and British legal and diplomatic manoeuvering to force Libya to hand over the suspects for trial before a Scottish court.

In 1991, Britain and the US said investigations into the crash had unearthed evidence that pointed towards Tripoli. But Libya's President, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, refused to surrender the prime suspects, claiming they would not receive a fair trial outside Libya, frustrating the US and British authorities and the hopes of the victims' families.

The Netherlands is regarded as having sound experience, having hosted the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Gaddafi continued to delay, and, in February, the US laid down a deadline, demanding the suspects surrender within a month. By March, Gaddafi finally agreed. The two men would be handed over.

The men are described as airline officials for Libyan Arab Airlines, but are believed to be intelligence agents. Both have denied the charges. It has been alleged that a more senior agent, perhaps even Gaddafi, was behind the bombing, but he has denied any involvement.

The surrender has long been sought by the British, and the week's Government statements had a subtle air of triumph. "There can be no question of prejudging the outcome, but the very fact that the trial will now take place represents real and significant progress," said the Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar.

Immediately after the suspects' arrival at the renamed HM Prison Zeist, the UN suspended its sanctions against Libya, leading this week to speculation that European oil companies, sensing an oil boom, will soon renew investment links with the country. However, Washington is expected to continue sanctions it imposed independently in the '80s when terrorist incidents forced Americans to leave Libya.

A Scottish Office spokeswoman said the level of international cooperation at Camp Zeist was unprecedented. "Never before has there been a Scottish trial taking place on foreign ground," she said. It was also likely to be the longest and most expensive Scottish trial ever.

In the week that Scotland began an historic election campaign for its own Parliament, the legal procedures begun at Camp Zeist also came under scrutiny. The Lockerbie bombing trial will be heard by a panel of three Scottish judges no jury, as it is believed to be almost impossible to find Scottish residents not prejudiced by reporting of the Lockerbie bombing. Most observers believe the trial could be a long process for the legal teams and the victims' families, and could last up to a year.

Scottish law requires that those charged with murder must be tried within 110 days, but it is widely believed in the Lockerbje case that the defence , lawyers will ask for an extension to examine investigations going back over 10 years.

If convicted, the men will serve their sentences at the high-security Barlinnie Jail in Glasgow, monitored by UN observers. The trial is not expected to begin for several months. For now, the prisoners are on remand.

Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, 46, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 42, were this week handed over to Dutch authorities and charged with mutder and conspiracy in connection with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Their arrest marks the culmination of years of intense international efforts to bring the men" to trial.

The two are accused of planting a bomb, concealed in a cassette recorder, that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York on 21 December, 1988, killing 270 people on board the plane and on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

On Monday, the two Libyan suspects left Tripoli seven years after they were indicted by Britain and the US. The next day they made their first appearance before a Scottish sheriff, Graham Cox QC, in a makeshift courtroom in the Netherlands. Officials read out the warrants for their arrest in English and Arabic and, in a brief hearing, the suspects made no plea.

As the Libyans settle in, their arrival focuses world attention on Soesterberg, a quiet Dutch town outside the city of Utrecht. Under an extraordinary, UN-brokered diplomatic deal, the Netherlands has ceded a small patch of its territory to Scotland for the term of the trial to satisfy Libya's demands that the charges be heard in a neutral country.

In a matter of months, Camp Zeist, a former US air base, has been refitted to provide a secure prison and courtroom under Scottish jurisdiction. As a result, Scottish prison staff and Dutch police share guard duties at the camp's front gate, beyond which lie 40 hectares deemed to be Scottish soil.

In the past week, residents of Soesterberg have become accustomed to a large media pack descending on their community, and police and military vehicles making regular convoys through their homely streets. Camp Zeist is reached at the end of a long, straight road lined with quaint brown cottages. Over a freeway bridge, on a grassed heath, the former base is a surprisingly pleasant place ("not when it rains" mutters a Scottish guard), ringed by forest and trees blossoming in the European spring.

The two-metre front gates, covered in plastic, appear hastily erected at what is regarded as a temporary facility, which is surrounded by a long perimeter fence. The front gates swing open regularly as armed police, and catering staff enter the camp.  

In 1992 the United Nations tried to force Libya's hand by imposing sanctions, banning air travel to and from Libya, and prohibiting trade in equipment used in the nation's vital oil industry. Intense international pressure followed, including the tireless efforts of one victim's father, Jim Swire, who represented the other families, and whose patient, lined face became a moving symbol of their struggle for justice.

Last year, after South Africa's President Nelson Mandela had helped mediate, Britain made some headway in bringing the suspects to trial. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook suggested the Netherlands as an impartial third party.

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