Global Policy Forum

Libyan Suspects Handed Over in

Nando Media
April 5, 1999

Clearing a path for justice after more than a decade of defiance, Libya on Monday handed over two suspects in the 1988 Pan Am jet bombing for trial in the Netherlands. The surrender of alleged former intelligence agents Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah means the two men can be tried under Scottish law on charges of planting the suitcase bomb that blew up Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The Dec. 21, 1988, bombing killed 270 people - including 189 Americans - and led to U.N. sanctions that have isolated Libya from the West for the past seven years. With the suspects' arrival, those sanctions were automatically suspended. Their surrender came after intense lobbying by South African President Nelson Mandela and Saudi Arabian and U.N. officials. Libya promised last month to turn over the men by Tuesday.

Accompanied by U.N. legal chief Hans Corell, who witnessed the handover in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the pair arrived at the Valkenburg military airport in The Hague. They were to be held in a prison there or in the port city of Rotterdam pending proceedings to extradite them to British custody in the Netherlands. Dutch authorities said the extradition process could be completed within a week to 10 days, but could take months if the suspects decide to fight it.

Once extradited, the suspects will be arraigned on charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and violations of international aviation laws. They then will be transferred to a cell at Camp Zeist, a former U.S. airbase near the central Dutch city of Utrecht, about 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, where the trial will be held under heavy security.

Under Scottish law, their trial should start 110 days after their extradition and arraignment. It is expected to last up to two years. "This is a historic moment," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said Monday. "It is the end of a 10-year diplomatic stalemate."

The trial, when it finally gets under way, will make international legal history after a decade of doubt that anyone would ever be tried for the bombing that killed 259 people in the air and 11 people on the ground.

In Britain, Jane Swire, whose daughter Flora was aboard the jumbo jet, called the handover "a beginning." "Obviously nothing can bring back the precious people that we have lost and that still hurts," she told Sky Television. "At least this is a good message for the world: People who are accused of wicked crimes like this are brought to justice."

Before leaving Tripoli, the two suspects said they hoped to return to their families after being found innocent. They said they were leaving Libya of their own accord because they were sure of their innocence. "We are confident in ourselves," said al-Megrahi, 46. "The days will prove that what we are saying is true." Fhimah, 42, flashed the victory sign and told Arab diplomats: "We hope to see you upon our return."

It will be the first time a Scottish court has convened in another country and tried a major crime without a jury. Under a treaty with the Dutch, part of the base will be considered Scottish soil for the duration of the trial.

The case also marks the first time the U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on a sovereign state to force it to surrender two of its citizens for trial abroad. Tripoli had long argued the suspects could not get a fair trial in Britain or the United States. In an attempt to break the deadlock, the two countries in August proposed the men be tried by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sought - and was given - guarantees about their rights and treatment.

The Security Council has said it will consider lifting entirely the sanctions imposed in 1992 and 1993 as the trial progresses. The sanctions include bans on international air travel and sales of weapons and some types of oil industry equipment. The West long has accused Libya under Gadhafi of supporting terrorists, from Palestinian groups fighting Israel to the Irish Republican Army. Gadhafi says he backs those fighting repression.

If convicted, the men would serve their sentences in Glasgow's Barlinnie jail, Scotland's highest-security prison. Preparing the venue and running the high-profile trial is expected to cost up to $200 million. Britain and the United States are still negotiating who pays for what. Cameras are prohibited in Scottish courts, so the trial will not be televised.

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