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   Vol.65/No.7            February 19, 2001 
Pan Am trial is latest U.S. assault on Libya
(feature article)
Relying entirely on circumstantial evidence, a Scottish panel of judges January 31 found Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi guilty of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and sentenced him to life in prison. He is expected to appeal the ruling. The court released a second Libyan defendant, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah.

U.S. president George Bush the same day announced that Washington's sanctions against Libya will continue, and pressed the Libyan government to "accept responsibility" for the loss of the plane and all aboard and to pay compensation to the families of those who died in the crash.

The plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, resulting in the deaths of 270 people. The trial, which cost $200 million, was conducted in the Netherlands by a Scottish court. The U.S. government has played a key role in the proceedings from the start.

The trial is part of a long history of hostility toward Libya by U.S. imperialism. In 1986, the administration of President Ronald Reagan, alleging that Libya was responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in West Berlin in which two U.S. military personnel died, imposed unilateral sanctions, banning nearly all trade and financial interactions with Libya. The same year, the U.S. government carried out a bombing raid on Tripoli, explicitly to punish Libya. The raid killed 37 people, including Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gadhafi's daughter.

Washington has branded Libya a terrorist country since 1979. The aggressive U.S. policy against Libya began when Gadhafi and other lower echelon officers, supported by the majority of workers and farmers, overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy in 1969. The following year Libya nationalized all foreign banks and oil reserves, until then in large part controlled by Standard Oil and Shell. The Libyans forced the U.S. to vacate its huge air force bastion and similarly expelled the British from their base. Gadhafi established alliances with nationalist Arab regimes and extended some support to the Palestinian struggle.

Since this time, the U.S. rulers have been looking for pretexts to regain the foothold they lost in the oil-rich country. One of Reagan's accusations against Gadhafi immediately after the 1986 bombardment of Tripoli was that Libya had provided military aid to revolutionary Nicaragua in its war against the U.S.-backed mercenary "contras."

For many months after the Pan Am plane exploded, U.S. and British officials claimed that a group of Palestinians living in Germany were responsible for this act. Testimony by Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Harold Hendershot, a witness for the prosecution, revealed that the FBI went to some length to investigate this group. He repeatedly answered "I don't recall," when asked questions about the investigation.

Switching their target in November, 1991, Washington and London began accusing Megrahi and Fhimah, and by association, the Libyan government and Gadhafi, of being responsible for the crash. The U.S. rulers began building a case against the two based chiefly on testimony by Abdul Majid, a Libyan secret service agent who had become a double agent working for Washington in the summer of 1988.

The case took more than 10 years to come to trial. The U.S. and British governments insisted that the trial be held in Scotland. Libyan officials wanted it to take place in another country, supervised by the UN or the Arab League. In response to the Libyan government's refusal to surrender the accused men, the UN Security Council in 1992 imposed a worldwide ban on air travel and arms sales to Libya and placed restrictions on the presence of diplomats there.

In a March 1999 compromise agreement, which was supported by the Russian government and many Arab states, the Libyan government agreed to release the men into custody for trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law. The UN and the United Kingdom suspended sanctions at this point, though Washington kept theirs in place. The sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to Libya. In 1997, Libyan officials estimated the sanctions had cost the country $23.5 billion.

Even with substantial collaboration with U.S. intelligence agencies, the Scottish prosecutors' case ended on a weak note. In a February 2 news analysis article entitled, "Lockerbie judges tied up threads to find guilt in circumstantial case," New York Times journalist Donald McNeil, Jr., wrote that the prosecution "knew its case was wholly circumstantial." In the verdict delivered by the three-judge panel, McNeil continued, "they tossed out much of the prosecution witnesses' evidence as false or questionable and said that the prosecution had failed to prove crucial elements, including the route that the bomb suitcase took."

With no reliable witnesses to draw on, the prosecution, by inference, sketched a picture of the two Libyans in Malta packing an explosive device enclosed in a radio into a suitcase surrounded by clothing. The two then allegedly put the suitcase on a flight from Malta to Heathrow in London, where it was loaded onto Pan Am 103.

The judges pointed in their ruling first to the "fact" that Tony Gauci, the owner of Mary's House clothing store in Malta, identified Megrahi as the person who purchased the same kind of clothing allegedly packed in a suitcase with an explosive device. However, at the same time they pointed out that this "was not an unequivocal identification," as it was made long after the event. Gauci was uncertain at several points and had picked other people out of photo displays.

The judges also cited Megrahi's use of a false name and passport, his presence in Malta at the time of the alleged incident, and his association with electronics dealer, Edwin Bollier, from whom Libyan security agents had bought MST-13 timers similar to the one allegedly used to explode the aircraft. However, they noted that Bollier was "an untruthful and unreliable witness."

The judges completely dismissed the credibility of Abdul Majid, the prosecution's main witness who collaborated closely with the CIA and FBI. Majid--now a U.S. citizen--who was living for a decade with a new identity provided to him under a U.S. federal witness protection program, was described in 1991 by the CIA as "a shattered person," who "is certainly milking any of his contacts, including us, for whatever he can get." Majid claimed before a grand jury in the United States in 1991 that he is related to former king Idris of Libya, and that Gadhafi and the president of Malta were both part of a Masonic conspiracy.

Once released, Fhimah returned to a hero's welcome in Libya, and was greeted by Gadhafi, who said the verdict "was under pressure from the Americans," and denounced Washington's demand that Libya take responsibility for the bombing and compensate the victims. Standing next to the ruins of his former home, which was destroyed by the 1986 U.S. bombing, Gadhafi said in English, "If we speak about victims, we must speak about the victims of 1986." Gadhafi called for the U.S. to remove its sanctions.

Tensions between the U.S. government and its allies are evident in wake of the verdict. While Washington showed no sign of lifting sanctions, the Financial Times described London and the other European powers as being "eager to expand ties with the Libyan regime and accelerate business access to the Libyan market--in particular the underdeveloped oil and gas industry."

Libya's record of resisting Washington's attempts to control it through economic and military bullying and bribery, however, makes it unlikely that the U.S. rulers will readily lift the sanctions or cease the demonization of Mu'ammar Gadhafi.
Related article:
End sanctions against Libya  
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