A Long Delay For Justice

Libyan defendants, Scottish judges, families of the dead and the first of thousands of witnesses come together in a makeshift Dutch courtroom this week to see if justice can be done--or begin to be done--in the terrorist bombing of Pan American Flight 103 more than 11 years ago. The trial will certainly be long, several months at least, and already there are signs that when it is over, the verdict may be far from clear.

Pan Am 103 blew up in the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground. After combing hundreds of square miles of Scottish countryside and following the evidence across Europe, investigators identified two Libyan suspects, Abdel Basset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhima, who worked for the Libyan airline--and reportedly for Libyan intelligence. The country's strongman, Muammar Kaddafi, was persuaded to hand them over for trial after receiving assurances that his government's alleged support for the bombing operation would not be mentioned in court.

Rather than extradite the two defendants to the United States or Britain, Kaddafi agreed they should be tried under Scottish law by three Scottish judges in a Dutch military base temporarily designated as Scottish territory. The prosecution's case looks iffy. It needs to prove that the two men put a suitcase containing a bomb onto a flight from Malta, where they worked, to Frankfurt, where it was transferred unaccompanied onto a Pan Am flight to London, which later took off and blew up over Scotland. A Libyan defector who is now in the American witness-protection program reportedly has changed testimony vital to the case: he no longer makes a conclusive link between the defendants and the bag allegedly put onto an Air Malta plane. Under Scottish law, the judges can reach one of three verdicts: guilty, not guilty or not proven. The last one may turn out to best reflect the available evidence. But whatever the verdict, it won't lay a glove on Muammar Kaddafi.