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Libyan Convicted in Lockerbie Blast

Courts: Intelligence agent receives a life sentence for the 1988 Pan Am bombing, and his co-defendant is acquitted. Tripoli says it accepts verdict.

February 01, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands — Twelve years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, a Libyan intelligence agent was convicted Wednesday of murdering 270 people in the blast, but his co-defendant was acquitted and quickly headed for home in Libya.

The guilty verdict for Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, 48, was met with a collective gasp--and an emotional collapse--from victims' relatives and with stony silence from the Libyans' families in separate areas of the high-security court gallery.

A panel of three Scottish judges acquitted Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 44, of murder charges in connection with the December 1988 bombing of the New York-bound flight and gave Megrahi a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

Although the verdicts by the judges were unanimous, Megrahi's brother Mohammed Ali indicated that he would appeal the "strange decision." Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, however, said his country respects the verdict.

The conviction of a Libyan government agent proved a stunning climax to the nine-month, nearly $90-million trial and cast a shadow over European moves to gradually normalize relations with the Tripoli regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi.

"The clear inference which we draw from this evidence is that the conception, planning and execution of the plot which led to the planting of the explosive device was of Libyan origin," the judges wrote in their 82-page decision.

Many of the victims' families--who say they will now proceed with civil lawsuits against Libya--urged their governments in Washington and London to go after Kadafi now.

"These are the jokers in the pack. Now we want the kings," said Betty Thomas of Wales, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the explosion.

President Bush applauded the conviction and said Libya must take responsibility for the attack. The White House also issued a statement saying that the guilty verdict is not enough to warrant an end to U.N. sanctions against Tripoli.

The British government, which has already resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli, said that it expects Libya to pay compensation of at least $700 million to the families and that Libya's leaders still must "prove to the international community that they have definitively renounced terrorism."

The day's drama was not in declarations from national capitals, however, but in an isolated courtroom built on a former U.S. military base to hear the Lockerbie case, which was tried by a Scottish court in the Netherlands under an agreement the U.S. and British governments reached with Libya.

Intense security measures included sniffer dogs, metal detectors and body searches for those wishing to enter the public gallery, separated from the courtroom by bulletproof glass. Scottish police bearing automatic rifles stood guard by the dozens.

The accused entered the courtroom wearing traditional Arab robes, Megrahi with a white shashiya hat and Fhimah with a black one, to learn their fate.

On the other side of the glass, families of the Lockerbie victims wore buttons with pictures of the dead and tense smiles. They carried boxes of tissues and exchanged words of encouragement for what they appeared to think would be bad news. The judges had returned a decision quickly, and that most likely meant acquittal, they reasoned.

The judges entered briskly in white wigs and red robes, bowed to the court and sat down. The presiding judge, Lord Sutherland, quickly read out Megrahi's guilty verdict, and the families' disbelief was audible in shocked gasps.

Megrahi was convicted of murder for having planted an unaccompanied suitcase containing a bomb-laden radio-cassette player aboard the flight.

Fhimah's acquittal also drew gasps, but the two defendants remained impassive.

As the chief prosecutor rose to appeal for a harsh sentence, Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, fell over in his seat.

Chief prosecutor Colin Boyd recited a litany of bombing victims for the judges: "Something of the scale of the impact can be gleaned from the fact that more than 400 parents lost a son or a daughter. Forty-six parents lost their only child," he said as court officials and relatives rushed to the frail Swire's side.

"He's dead," one person whispered fearfully.

"Sixty-five women were widowed, and 11 men lost their wives," Boyd continued.

Someone searched for a pulse on Swire's wrist and loosened the collar and tie below his gray face.

"More than 140 children lost a parent, and seven children lost both parents," Boyd concluded.

Four people carried Swire out of the gallery as he began to come around. He was taken to the hospital and returned later. Swire, who sat through most of the trial, has worked tirelessly for the last 12 years on behalf of the British families of Pan Am 103 victims.

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