Lockerbie Prosecutor Drops Lesser Charges

Posted: January 10, 2001

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands — After eight months of testimony from more than 230 witnesses, a bewigged and bespectacled prosecutor yesterday stitched together for the first time the evidence against two Libyans accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, 12 years ago, killing 270 people.

"This is a circumstantial case," Solicitor Alistair P. Campbell told the three-judge panel at this former U.S. air base that has been declared Scottish territory for the duration of the trial. "Mathematical certainty is neither necessary nor achievable."

The prosecutor nonetheless displayed great optimism about his case when he told the court that the state would drop lesser charges of conspiracy to murder and violation of airport security, and seek to convict the accused only of murder, the hardest charge to prove. Clare Connelly, a Glasgow University law professor who has been monitoring the case, said the move was surprising and indicated the prosecution's confidence.

Campbell is expected to take a couple of days to argue that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, 48, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 44, both employees of Libyan Arab Airlines, smuggled a Toshiba radio-cassette player rigged with Semtex plastic explosive aboard a flight from the Mediterranean island of Malta to Frankfurt, Germany.

From there, the baggage carrying the bomb was tagged to London's Heathrow Airport, where it was loaded onto the New York-bound Pan Am flight on Dec. 21, 1988. All 259 people aboard, 189 of them Americans, died after the bomb exploded at 31,000 feet. The fiery wreckage killed 11 people on the ground.

In the debris, investigators found parts of a timer and a circuit board that led them on an international chase in which they questioned more than 15,000 people in more than 30 countries over three years. The two Libyans were accused in 1991, but getting them to trial took several years of legal and political machinations.

Defense lawyers showed their own confidence Monday when they rested after calling only three witnesses. Neither defendant testified. Connelly said it was unusual for defendants to testify under Scottish law.

Scottish law allows the three-judge panel to return verdicts of guilty, innocent or not proven. The defendants face maximum penalties of life in prison. The United States gave up the possibility of the death penalty in order to persuade Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi to extradite the men for trial in a neutral country. His refusal to turn over the men had prompted the United States and Britain to lobby the United Nations to impose sanctions on Libya.

According to the original indictment, defendants Megrahi and Fhimah were Libyan intelligence officers who worked in the office of the state-owned Libyan airline on Malta. But yesterday, prosecutors dropped their claim that Fhimah was an intelligence agent.

The defense has argued that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Syrian-based Palestinian extremist group, was responsible for the blast.

U.S. and British intelligence officers believe Iranian officials originally hired the Popular Front to blow up a U.S. airliner after the American warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air passenger jet over the Persian Gulf in 1988. But when West German authorities broke up a Popular Front cell in Germany, these officials believe, the Iranians subcontracted the job to Gadhafi, who was then engaged in his own murky war with the United States.

Daniel Rubin's e-mail address is drubin

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