Monday, 5 June 2017

New claim overshadows Lockerbie trial

[What follows is the text of a Reuters news agency report that appeared on the South African IOL website on this date in 2000:]

Defence lawyers at the Lockerbie trial sniped at prosecution forensic witnesses on Monday in a bid to sow doubt over exactly how the Pan Am jumbo jet was blasted out of the air over Scotland in 1988.

But a US television report that the attack was masterminded by Iran, not Libya, overshadowed the highly technical in-court wrangling over explosives, baggage containers, suitcases and scraps of clothes that fell from the sky amid thousands of pieces of flaming debris.

CBS television reported on Sunday that a senior Iranian intelligence service defector, now being debriefed in Turkey by the CIA, had said he had documents to prove Iran trained a group of Libyans to stage the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Iran was initially blamed for the attack, which killed all 259 people on board and 11 residents of the town of Lockerbie.

It had vowed the skies would "rain blood" after a US warship shot down an Iranian passenger plane six months earlier.

Forensic evidence later shifted the focus to Libya. In 1999, after tortuous UN-brokered negotiations, Libya agreed to turn over suspects Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, to be tried under Scottish law in a specially built court in the Netherlands.

Briton Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the bombing, said if the material contained in the CBS report were true, the CIA should submit it to Scottish police.

"It's very important. As far as we're concerned, as seekers after truth and justice, we welcome all new material," he said.

"This man has admitted being the man who selected terrorist targets. If so, he is a suspect in this case. We need to see what they (the prosecution) are going to do about it."

The defence need only create "reasonable doubt" in the minds of the panel of three judges hearing the case to win an acquittal.

It suggested on Monday that two key fragments of wreckage had been contaminated with several kinds of explosive residue during British laboratory tests and not just by one kind from a bomb in the plane's hold.

Defence lawyer Richard Keen grilled former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) forensic scientist John Douse on possible sources of contamination, including storage procedures and equipment used to prepare samples.

Clearly riled, Douse dismissed Keen's arguments.

"That is unscientific...I have conclusive proof which I believe can refute this," he said from beside the reconstructed remains of the shattered aircraft luggage container said to have been torn apart by the bomb.

But Douse lamented the fact that his agency had not been able to test fragments of an electronic timer and the tape recorder thought to have hidden the bomb, citing cost savings at the laboratory.

"I would have given my right arm to examine them all," he said.

In his testimony on Friday, Douse said that his tests on metal fragments from the luggage container found minute traces of PETN and RDX, components used to make the plastic explosive Semtex.

Former DERA forensic explosives director Thomas Hayes, testifying on Monday after Douse, told the court he was certain a bomb in a brown Samsonite case had destroyed the jet.

"It was established without any doubt that this item had been subjected to a large internal explosion and therefore had originally contained an explosive device," he said.

Hayes said the nature of the damage indicated the suitcase had been either on the floor of the baggage container or on top of another case, corroborating blast pattern evidence from previous witnesses.

His testimony could hamper defence hopes to show that the bomb exploded outside the container and therefore could not have been planted in a suitcase by the accused.

The prosecution says the defendants were Libyan intelligence agents who used cover as employees of Libyan Arab Airlines to put a bomb in an unaccompanied suitcase in Malta, which was eventually loaded onto the doomed flight in London.

The defence is expected to blame Palestinian extremists operating in Frankfurt. 

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