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Background: Lockerbie Verdict

January 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: It was the worst mass murder in British history. 270 people killed when a Pan Am jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, four days before Christmas. Among the dead were 189 Americans. After 12 years of investigation, and a nine-month, $80 million trial, a Scottish court in the Netherlands today convicted former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi of murder.

The 48-year-old Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 20 years. But the judges found his co-defendant, Libyan airline manager Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, not guilty. The ruling from the three-judge panel was handed down at heavily-guarded Camp Zeist, a former U.S.-NATO air base near Amsterdam. No cameras were allowed in court. The 82-page ruling acknowledged that much of the evidence was circumstantial.

“We are aware that in relation to certain aspects of the case there are a number of uncertainties and qualifications,” the ruling said. “However, we are satisfied that the evidence does fit together to form a real and convincing pattern. There is nothing in the evidence which leaves us with any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the first accused.” Lord Advocate Colin Boyd led the Scottish prosecution team throughout the trial.

COLIN BOYD: Today, however, I think belongs to the families. They have waited 12 years for this trial. Many said it would not happen, but we have shown that it can happen, and I am proud that the Scottish criminal justice system has risen to the challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: Relatives of the victims had mixed reactions.

PETER LOWENSTEIN, father of victim: 20 years is less than a month per victim and somehow that doesn’t sit right with me.

BRUCE SMITH, husband of victim: I’m enormously gratified that we got even one guilty verdict. It’s going to make continuing action against the Libyan government itself much simpler.

APHRODITE TSARIS, relative of victim: There is no clearer statement that this was state-sponsored terrorism. However, I must tell you that my heart broke when Mr. Fhimah was allowed to leave the courtroom because clearly that bomb could not have gotten on the plane without his assistance.

MARGARET WARNER: After the crash there were countless theories on who was responsible. It took U.S. and British investigators until 1991 to identify and charge the two Libyan suspects in the case. They accused the two of routing a bomb-laden suitcase from the island of Malta to be put aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in Frankfurt. The 747 jet flew to London for a brief stop, then departed for New York. It exploded not long after taking off. The two Libyans denied any involvement and Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi refused to surrender them for trial. In 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Libya to pressure Gadhafi to give them up. Still, Gadhafi resisted.

But in 1999, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and then- South African President Nelson Mandela, brokered a deal. The two suspects were turned over for trial by a Scottish court in a neutral country — the Netherlands. The U.N. sanctions against Libya were temporarily suspended in return. After today’s verdict, the Bush administration issued a statement saying this wouldn’t mean an automatic end to permanent U.N. sanctions against Libya. It said Libya would have to compensate the victims’ families and accept responsibility for the terrorist act before that could happen. The United States imposed separate sanctions against Libya before the Lockerbie disaster. A State Department spokesman said today those would not be affected by today’s verdict.