Friday 21 April 2017

Flight to disaster

[This is the headline over a report that appeared on the BBC News website on this date in 2000. It reads as follows:]

BBC Scotland home affairs correspondent Reevel Alderson reports on how the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster became a murder inquiry

The police operation which began on 21 December, 1988, is the biggest ever mounted in Scotland.

Initial activity in the darkness of the longest night of the year was concentrated on finding out if there were any survivors - and establishing the extent of the destruction in the town of Lockerbie.

A week after the crash, on 28 December, the police investigation turned into a murder inquiry when the government's Air Accident Investigation Branch announced that a bomb had been responsible for the tragedy.

A painstaking search for debris and the belongings of the 257 people on the jumbo jet "Clipper Maid of the Seas" had become a search for clues.
It stretched for 100 sq. miles east of Lockerbie, across the English border as far as the Kielder Forest.

Initial forensic examination of the debris revealed further details about the bomb which had devastated the aircraft 30,000 ft above Lockerbie.

By 16 February,1989, the man leading the inquiry, detective superintendent John Orr was able to reveal in which part of the baggage hold the bomb had been - and in what luggage.

Further evidence emerged during the fatal accident inquiry (FAI) in Dumfries before Sheriff Principal John Mowat QC, between October 1990 and February 1991.

An FAI is held in Scotland in cases where a sudden death requires investigation. There is no jury, and its purpose is to discover how a death arose - and most importantly - if lessons can be learned to prevent a repetition.

In his determination, issued in February, 1991, Sheriff Mowat said the Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb - along with other baggage from the Frankfurt flight - had not been properly checked or x-rayed at Heathrow.

His conclusion was: "The primary cause of the deaths was the criminal act of murder."

This had been the first involvement of the Scottish judicial system in the aftermath of the bombing.

The evidence available to the FAI formed part of the Crown case for any eventual prosecution.

On 14 November, 1991, an announcement was made in Edinburgh, by the senior law officer, the Lord Advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, indicting Abdel Baset Ali Mohammed el-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhima, on three charges of murder, conspiracy to murder and contravention of international aviation laws.

That announcement was made simultaneously in Washington. The United States and the UK had agreed that the two men, described as agents of the Libyan Intelligence Services, should be tried by a court either in the US or Scotland.

Until the indictment and warrant for the arrest of the two men, international focus had been on a Syrian-backed group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command).

Now international diplomatic efforts were targeted at the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and on 27 November, 1991, Britain and the US formally asked for the extradition of the two men.

There followed almost seven years of diplomatic wrangling and obstruction before hope emerged that an end could be found to the impasse.

UN resolution 731 passed on 21 January, 1992, called on Libya to collaborate with international investigators.

When it failed to do so, UN resolution 748 of 31 March imposed an air and arms embargo on the Libyans.

By resolution 883 of November, 1993, further sanctions were imposed by the UN, including the freezing of Libyan assets in foreign banks and an embargo on exporting oil industry-related equipment there.

Throughout the 1990s a number of initiatives took place, aimed at bringing the two Libyan suspects to trial.

These ranged from a hearing at an international court - rejected as "impractical" by Britain and the US - to a suggestion by the Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University, Robert Black, that the trial could be held in a neutral country whilst retaining Scots rules of evidence and procedure.

Professor Black travelled to Tripoli on a number of occasions, along with Scots lawyers engaged by Megrahi and Fhimah.

On 24 August, 1998, following strenuous diplomatic efforts by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and the Arab League, as well as the outgoing President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, London and Washington made a formal offer to Libya.

It was for a trial of the two suspects in the Netherlands under Scots law.
Tripoli accepted the proposal but demanded sanctions should be lifted.

The proposals were for a trial to be held in the Netherlands before a panel of three Scottish judges, and without the jury, which would normally hear a criminal trial.

With that exception, the trial would be carried out exactly as any other before the Scottish High Court.

There remained concerns of the accused and their lawyers, but on 5 April, 1999, the two men were flown in a United Nations plane from Libya the Dutch military airbase of Valkenburg, near The Hague.

After a short extradition process, they were taken by helicopter under armed guard to Camp van Zeist, home of the Dutch air force museum where, on 14 April, they were formally committed for trial by Sheriff Principal Graham Cox QC.

Under normal circumstances under Scots law, a trial of a serious matter - under "solemn" procedure - must begin 110 days from the date of committal.

It is open to either the defence or the Crown to seek an adjournment.
Given the extraordinary circumstances of this case, two adjournments were granted [and the trial began on 3 May, 2000].

It is taking place in a court and prison complex built at a cost of £12m at Camp Zeist. Special facilities have been provided, including a bullet-proof glass screen separating the public from those in the court.

The judges' benches, and those of the defence and prosecution teams, are equipped with high-tech monitors allowing them to see documents and those giving evidence.

They have laptop computers giving them a simultaneous transcription of the proceedings, and headphones allowing the judges and the lawyers to hear translators working in English and Arabic.

The total bill for providing the facilities, guarding the two accused - said to be £2m a month - and the legal costs, will come to at least £150m by the time it is over.

For the families of the 270 victims of the bombing, the cost of justice is immeasurable, and the only thing which matters is that the facts of the case are made public.

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