Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Lockerbie trial-related documents classified by US government

[What follows is the text of a report published by USA Today on this date in 1999. It no longer appears on the magazine’s website but can still be found here on The Pan Am 103 Crash Website:]

The Clinton administration has classified two documents related to an upcoming trial in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, intensifying concern among some victims' relatives about how thorough the prosecution will be. ''These are documents that need to be released,'' says Rosemary Wolfe of Alexandria, Va. Her stepdaughter, Miriam, 20, was one of 189 Americans killed when the Boeing 747 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, Dec 21, 1988.

The documents are a letter and the annex to the letter by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Sent to Gadhafi in February to persuade him to turn over two suspects for prosecution, they assured the Libyan leader that the trial was not intended to ''undermine'' the Libyan regime, according to US officials who have seen the text. The annex also promised that if convicted, the two Libyan intelligence agents -- Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah -- would not be questioned about other acts of the Libyan government.

State Department and White House officials say the assurances were necessary to persuade Gadhafi to cooperate and that no secret deals were struck. The trial, which begins in May in the Netherlands, will be held before Scottish judges who are not legally bound by the Annan letter or any other private assurances to Gadhafi. ''We've always said the evidence has to lead where it will lead,'' says Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman.

Other US officials, however, say Gadhafi would never have turned over the two men if he believed that they would implicate him or Libyans close to him. Relatives of the suspects are being held in Libya, essentially as hostages, the officials say, inhibiting the defendants from testifying fully. A half-dozen alleged co-conspirators also have ''passed away under various circumstances,'' according to a US official who asked not to be named. Wolfe and other relatives of victims have been read only portions of the documents by State Department and UN officials.

On Oct 12, Cliff Kincaid, president of America's Survival, a conservative, anti-UN group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents. It was denied on Dec 15 by Margaret Grafeld, director of the State Department's Office of Information Resources Management Programs and Services. Grafeld's letter, a copy of which was made available to USA Today, said the documents were classified ''in the interest of national defense or foreign relations.'' Kincaid says he will appeal.

The decision to classify the documents has intensified anger among some relatives of the victims. ''If these documents were classified all along, why were we read portions?'' Wolfe asks. She plans a separate Freedom of Information Act request. Sens Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, and Robert Torricelli, D-NJ, and Rep Benjamin Gilman, R-NY, also have written Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seeking release of the documents. They have been turned down.

State Department officials say they cannot release the items because they are UN documents. Fred Eckhard, Annan's spokesman, says they are private correspondence ''on a highly sensitive subject. How can you do diplomacy if you go making such things public?'' Some of the assurances to Gadhafi were negotiated by South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela and Saudi envoy to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Many US officials regard the complicated diplomacy leading to the trial -- including seven-year UN sanctions that were suspended when the suspects were turned over in April -- as a victory that has gotten Libya out of the terrorism business. Since turning over the two suspects, Gadhafi has expelled the Abu Nidal terrorist group and transferred support from other radical Palestinians to the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization. Recognizing the change in Libyan behavior, Britain has sent an ambassador back to the Libyan capital. US oil company executives have been allowed to tour old property in Libya. A State Department provision barring the use of a US passport to travel to Libya is under ''active review,'' Reeker says.

US officials also are considering taking Libya off a State Department list of terrorist-sponsoring states. That would ease the way for US trade sanctions against Libya to be lifted if the trial proceeds smoothly and Gadhafi compensates families of the Pan Am victims. ''I think we can expect that Libya's reintegration into the international community will continue, whether we like it or not, so long as Libya avoids new terrorism or blatant challenges to the international order,'' Ronald Neumann, deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, told the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

US officials note that leaders of countries and groups responsible for heinous acts are rarely subjected to personal punishment. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is now regarded as a peacemaker and the same diplomatic rehabilitation is likely for Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Those spending another difficult holiday season without their relatives might never accept Gadhafi's return to the fold, however, especially if they continue to believe that important information has been denied to them. ''We totally caved in,'' Wolfe says.

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