- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

A Scottish court yesterday convicted one of two men accused of planting a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103, bringing tears of joy and outrage from exhausted family members and compelling governments to consider the impact on their diplomatic relations with Libya.

The verdict against Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, reached after eight months of testimony that ranged from the arcane to the dramatic, opens the way for civil trials that could bring billions of dollars to the families of the victims.

In Washington, President Bush pledged to maintain pressure on the Libyan government for an admission of responsibility in the 1988 bombing and to push for compensation for the survivors of those who were killed.

"Nothing can change the suffering and loss of this terrible act, but I hope the families do find some solace that a guilty verdict was rendered," Mr. Bush said. "I want to assure the families and victims the United States government will continue to pressure Libya to accept responsibility for this act and to compensate the families."

Acting Deputy Attorney General Robert S. Mueller III, who headed the department's criminal division when Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were indicted in November 1991, said yesterday's conviction means someone finally has been "held accountable for this heinous act of terrorism."

"We hope this verdict will serve to reduce the pain that the victims' family members have endured," Mr. Mueller said. "The United States remains vigilant in its pursuit to bring to justice any other individuals who may have been involved in the conspiracy to bring down Pan Am Flight 103."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the verdict "clearly" established responsibility for the attack on a Libyan government security service agent, and that Libya "bears responsibility for the actions that were taken."

In a statement, the department said U.N. Security Council resolutions call on Libya to "satisfy certain requirements, including compensation to the victims' families and the acceptance of responsibility for this act of terrorism, before U.N. sanctions will be removed."

"The government of Libya has not yet satisfied these requirements," the statement said.

The three-judge panel that heard the case ordered a life term for Megrahi for murder in the bombing, which claimed the lives of 270 persons, including 189 Americans. Eleven residents of Lockerbie, a town in central Scotland, were killed by falling debris from the 747.

Megrahi, the former chief of aviation security for Libya's intelligence service, will be eligible for parole after serving 20 years in a Scottish prison. Scottish law does not favor long sentences, nor does it allow for a death penalty.

He has two weeks to decide whether to appeal. The trial was held in the Netherlands, where the Scottish court convened at Camp Zeist, a former NATO air base guarded by British soldiers and police.

Mr. Fhimah was acquitted largely because the judges rejected testimony of a CIA-affiliated witness who placed him in the Maltese airport, where prosecutors say a suitcase-bomb was ticketed to Frankfurt, Germany, and then transferred to the doomed New York-bound flight.

"There is no evidence at all to suggest that the second accused was even at Luqa Airport," wrote the judges in their 82-page verdict, noting that the charges against him were "in the realm of speculation."

Family members of those killed in the bombing, many of whom followed the trial from conference centers in Washington, New York, London and Scotland, called on Mr. Bush to support U.N. sanctions, which have been suspended, and to support pending lawsuits against Libya and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"I think that President Bush will do the right thing irrespective of any oil interests," said George Williams of Joppatowne, Md., whose 24-year-old son, Geordie, was killed.

Susan Cohen, whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died aboard the plane along with 35 other Syracuse University students, also urged Mr. Bush to support U.N. sanctions and the pending lawsuits.

"You can't make friends with somebody who blows up an American plane and kills a lot of innocent people," she said.

George Williams, the father of another victim, said it was time to hit Col. Gadhafi "so hard in the wallet that all of the terrorist leaders will say, 'This is too damned expensive.'

Despite Libya's pledge to pay compensation to the victims, U.N. diplomats said it was unlikely the Security Council would quickly lift the economic sanctions imposed against Libya in 1993.

Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, Abudzed Dorda, said his government would accept any decisions by a Scottish court and would pay whatever compensation it ordered.

"In case any decision will be taken by the Scotch civil court, we will respect that and implement it," Mr. Dorda said in an interview with the Associated Press. But he denied that Tripoli was involved with the bombing and said this was implicitly accepted when the prosecutors eliminated the conspiracy charges against the defendants.

"There is no single official Libyan involved in this," he said, arguing that the two defendants were tried as individuals.

Nonetheless, the verdict gives new momentum to a long-stalled civil suit in New York, where a group of 100 families is suing Tripoli and the two accused for as much as $20 billion.

"We are going to push the civil case to obtain full accountability and hold Libya as a state accountable for the bombing," said Mark Zaid, the Washington lawyer organizing the suit. "We are going to press the United States to share its evidence with us to facilitate that objective."

Because the burden of proof is much lower in civil suits than criminal ones, Mr. Zaid said, "we have no doubt we can prove Fhimah's culpability."

Washington and London have pursued the perpetrators of the Pan Am bombing since the 747 was blown out of the sky just before Christmas 1988.

Initial suspicion focused on Iranian-backed terrorists, possible known bombers affiliated with a Palestinian terrorism group then based in Germany. The attack came on the anniversary of the accidental downing of an Iranian jet by the USS Vincennes, and there were similarities between this bomb, hidden in a Toshiba boom box, and other attacks.

Lawyers for the Libyans stressed this theory in their defense.

The trial is said to have cost some $80 million, most of which was borne by Britain and Scotland. The United States spent at least $13 million on the trial, including $7 million for court costs and another $4.8 million for assistance to the families of the victims.

"That's to date," said a Justice Department spokesman. "It doesn't mean it's over."

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