Monday, 22 September 2014

The path towards a Lockerbie trial

[What follows is the text of an Associated Press news agency report issued on this date sixteen years ago:]

The issues delaying the trial of two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet could be resolved "in a matter of weeks," two Britons said today after meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Jim Swire, who speaks for some British families, and Robert Black, a law professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said their talks Tuesday with Gadhafi in Tripoli were constructive and they will soon submit new proposals to UN officials to speed up the trial. They refused to give details.

"If we can reach agreement over certain technicalities which have been holding up the process, then the trial could be under way within weeks," Swire told The Associated Press. He spoke from the Tunis airport, where the men were waiting for a flight home.

The United States and Britain propose to try the suspects in the Netherlands by Scottish judges under Scottish law. Libya has accepted the proposal but continues to argue about specifics.

Swire said the Libyans offered no assurances that they will soon surrender the suspects. "But we are definitely more confident now than when we left for Tripoli," he said.

Libya has agreed in principle to accept the US-British compromise plan, but Gadhafi has demanded guarantees for the legal rights and safety of the men.

The US-British proposal calls for the Libyan suspects, if convicted, to serve their prison time in Britain. Libya has said they should serve any sentence in Libya.

For their part, British families are concerned that officials and lawyers should have full, unfettered access to all relevant witnesses and evidence, wherever they are, said Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

The United Nations imposed sanctions in 1992 to try to force Gadhafi to hand over the suspects for trial. The sanctions ban air travel to and from Libya, freeze foreign assets and bar the sale of some oil equipment.

The UN Security Council has passed a resolution saying that the sanctions will be lifted when the suspects are turned over for trial in the Netherlands. 

[In fact it was not a matter of weeks but another six months before the hurdles were overcome, largely through the good offices of the UN Under-Secretary-General and Legal Counsel, Hans Corell. Here is my brief account of this stage in the Lockerbie saga:]

From about late July 1998, there began to be leaks from UK government sources to the effect that a policy change over Lockerbie was imminent, and on 24 August 1998 the governments of the United Kingdom and United States announced that they had reversed their stance on the matter of a "neutral venue" trial. (...)

Although the British proposal was announced in late August 1998, it was not until 5 April 1999 that the two suspects actually arrived in the Netherlands for trial before the Scottish court.  Why the delay? The answer is that some of the fine print in the two documents was capable of being interpreted, and was in fact interpreted, by the Libyan defence team and the Libyan government as having been deliberately designed to create pitfalls to entrap them.  And since the governments of the United Kingdom and United States resolutely refused to have any direct contact with either the Libyan government or the Libyan defence lawyers, these concerns could be dealt with only through an intermediary, namely the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

Between 20 and 22 September 1998, Dr Swire and I were again in Tripoli and were able to provide to the Libyan government and the Libyan defence team a measure of reassurance regarding some of the issues that concerned them.  However, it was we who (having received the information hot off the presses from a journalist in The Hague) had to inform the Libyan government that the chosen location in the Netherlands for trial was Kamp van Zeist, a former NATO base to which the air force of the United States still had extant treaty rights of access.  I anticipated that this information would cause the Libyans to renounce the "neutral venue" concept in high dudgeon and complain of the lack of good faith demonstrated by Her Majesty's Government in selecting, or agreeing to, such a site.  But they did not do so.  This, more than anything else, convinced me that the Libyan government and the Libyan defence lawyers genuinely wished a trial to take place and that the concerns they had expressed regarding details of the scheme now on offer were genuine concerns, not merely a colourable pretext for evading their earlier commitment to such a solution.

On 22 September we had a further meeting with the Leader of the Revolution.  On this occasion the meeting took place not in Tripoli but 400 kilometres to the east in a genuine (not reinforced concrete) Bedouin tent in a desert location inland from the town of Sirte.  Surrounded by sand dunes and noisily ruminating camels, Colonel Gaddafi, Dr Swire and I  discussed the details of the British scheme.  He accepted my assurance that at least some of the concerns that Libyan government lawyers had raised were unwarranted and that it would be worthwhile to continue to seek clarifications and reassurances through the office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations regarding the remaining issues.

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