Seeking Justice for Pan Am 103

Article excerpt

The trial of two Libyan intelligence agents for the bombing of Pan Am 103 is barely a month old, and already much criticism has been leveled at the proceedings and the United States government's decisions that made it possible. The actual process of rendering justice rarely satisfies the human desire for the ideal, but in this case, the discontent is especially acute because international politics appear to be tangled up in the matter, making many wonder if justice is being shortchanged.

A closer look, however, suggests that the trial under way at Camp Zeist, a former US air base in the Netherlands, does fulfill the demands of justice in the Lockerbie case and also represents a real achievement for American foreign policy. Charges that the US had compromised its principles to sweep the longtime problem of Qaddafi's Libya under the rug and that Washington has been complicit in judicial legerdemain do not stand up to scrutiny.

The Trial: According to one line of attack, the rules have been bent just to get Libya to surrender the suspects - Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah - and to hold a trial and be done with it. But the reality is that in arranging for this trial, the United States and the United Kingdom made no concessions that would vitiate the quality of justice rendered.

Placing the court in the Netherlands - albeit in a military camp, which through innovative diplomacy has been temporarily put under British sovereignty - is a small gesture without substantive consequences. As for the proceedings themselves, this is a real court operating under real law, and if convicted, the defendants will serve real time. The law is Scottish, as it would have been if the trial had taken place in a local court in Scotland that would ordinarily have had jurisdiction.

Some have pointed to the fact that the verdict will be in the hands of three judges instead of a jury. That is true, but in the era of trials like O.J. Simpson's, that hardly seems like an objection. Another common theme in press reporting has been that Scottish rules of evidence will make it difficult to get a conviction. In fact, American legal experts believe the Libyans blundered because an American trial would have brought with it even more restrictive rules of evidence.

The Culprits: The most frequent criticism, particularly from the more outspoken families of victims, is that the real wrongdoer - Moammar Qaddafi - has been shielded from prosecution for the deaths of 270 people. They point to a letter from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Libyan leader stating that the trial would not "undermine" his government. That pledge has been interpreted as a sort of guarantee of immunity. It is no such thing. In fact, it means only that Scottish courts don't conduct political trials, as is true of courts wherever the rule of law obtains.

The US and the UK have made it clear all along that the prosecution will follow the evidence wherever it leads. …