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4 Convicted in '86 Berlin Disco Blast

Justice: Trial ends with one acquittal for murder of two GIs and a Turkish woman. Judge adds that Libya's involvement was proved but not Kadafi's.

November 14, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — A German court convicted a former Libyan diplomat and three accomplices on murder charges Tuesday more than 15 years after they bombed a crowded West Berlin discotheque, killing two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman.

Berlin state Judge Peter Marhofer also ruled that Libya was involved in the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco but that prosecutors had failed to prove that Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi personally ordered the attack.

The four defendants were given sentences of between 12 and 14 years. A fifth was acquitted.

Although the convictions were slow in coming and the sentences fell short of the prosecution's demand for life terms, colleagues and relatives of the victims hailed the verdicts as belated justice and the kind of legal closure also sought by Americans in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"In the 'You can run but you can't hide' sense, La Belle is a classic example. It took 16 years, but they finally got them," said Maj. Edward S. Loomis, a U.S. European Command official who was posted here in the 1980s and was a friend of one of the victims, Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford, 21. "This is the wrap-up and an example of what is going to be needed for the victims from Sept. 11."

A 5-pound bomb packed with nails exploded on the dance floor of the nightclub at 1:40 a.m. April 5, 1986, killing Ford, 25-year-old Sgt. James E. Goins and 29-year-old Nermin Hannay and injuring 229 people.

The flying nails acted like shrapnel, inflicting such severe injuries that dozens of the victims lost limbs to amputation.

Although friends and relatives of the victims welcomed the convictions, some deemed the sentences too lenient.

"They took three lives," said Goins' widow, Patrocinia, "but I'm satisfied that they will be punished."

Loomis said it was important that a country with a respected legal system prosecuted the suspects and obtained guilty verdicts, even if the sentences were disappointing.

Prosecutors said the sentences would be appealed.

During the four-year trial, prosecutors contended that Kadafi ordered a terrorist strike against U.S. forces here in retaliation for the sinking of two Libyan ships in the Gulf of Sidra in March 1986. That naval confrontation was itself a U.S. military response to December 1985 terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna that Washington blamed on Libya.

The five defendants were arrested in 1996 after investigators were able to comb intelligence archives of the former East German state security forces, the Stasi, which disbanded after Germany's 1990 reunification. Those files showed that Stasi agents had known of a Libyan plot to attack U.S. service members in West Berlin and had tried to stop it. They were thwarted by the East Berlin government.

Yasser Chraidi, a 42-year-old Palestinian then employed by the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin, drew a 14-year sentence for his alleged role as organizer of the La Belle attack. He was convicted of three counts of murder and 104 counts of attempted murder but, like the other defendants, will be eligible for parole in a few years because all will be credited with a year and a half of prison time for each year they served during the investigation.

Also found guilty and sentenced to 12-year terms were Musbah Eter, 44, a former Libyan diplomat, and Ali Chanaa, 42, a Palestinian. Both men expressed remorse for their crimes after hearing the testimony of disfigured victims and bereaved relatives.

Chanaa's former wife, German citizen Verena Chanaa, 42, was given a 14-year sentence for having scouted out a bombing target known to be popular with the 6,000 Americans then residing in West Berlin and for having carried the explosives into the club in a knapsack.

Her sister, 36-year-old Andrea Haeusler, was acquitted for lack of evidence that she knew a bomb was being planted. Haeusler had accompanied Verena Chanaa into the disco and left with her five minutes before the explosion.

Prosecutors said Chraidi recruited the Chanaas, paying them about $7,000 for their roles in the attack.

U.S. forces attacked two Libyan cities in retaliation 10 days after the La Belle bombing, acting on information provided by American and German intelligence sources. It wasn't until investigators got hold of the Stasi files after the Berlin Wall fell that they were able to establish a clear link with the Libyan regime.

During the trial, prosecutor Detlev Mehlis presented diplomatic cables sent from the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin to Tripoli, Libya's capital, confirming that the Libyan leadership at some level was involved in the bombing.

"Expect the result tomorrow morning. It is God's will," one message sent to Libya on the eve of the attack promised. A few hours after the bombing, another cable reported to Tripoli that "at 1:30 a.m., one of the acts was carried out with success, without leaving a trace."

"The nightclub was bombed by order of Libyan authorities and [the attack was] carried out by third parties and diplomats," Mehlis told the court in his closing statement, adding that the attack "prepared the ground for New York" strikes Sept. 11.

Judge Marhofer agreed that the Libyan government has yet to "distance itself from terrorism" but said there was no evidence of any direct involvement by Kadafi in the La Belle killings.

"Libya bears at the very least a considerable portion of the responsibility for the attack," the judge said in his ruling.

Earlier this year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's foreign policy advisor disclosed in a confidential cable later leaked to German media that Kadafi had "admitted Libya took part in terrorist actions," including the La Belle bombing, but claimed to have abandoned those pursuits.

Prosecutors tried to subpoena the advisor, Michael Steiner, but the Berlin government blocked the summons, citing national security concerns.

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