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. …