Lockerbie Case

On 21 December 1988 a Pan Am Boeing 747 en route from Frankfurt to New York exploded over the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people aboard and 11 people in the village died. Nearly three years later, on 13 November 1991, Scottish and US judicial authorities issued international warrants for the arrest of two Libyans, Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, an employee of Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta, and Abd al-Basset al-Megrahi, a former security chief of the airline. Both were accused of having sent a suitcase with the bomb from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was put on board Pan Am flight number 103.

The indictment of the two Libyans, and Libyan involvement in the bombing, was not always evident. Initially the suspects were sought in Syria, Iran and amongst dissident Palestinian groups.

Amidst different hypothesis, the bombing could have been an Iranian revenge for the downing of an Iranian airliner by a missile launched by the USS Vincennes over the Gulf on 3 July 1988, that claimed the lives of the 290 people on board. The retaliation could have been ordered by some Iranian authorities and executed with the help Syrians and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the need to obtain the support of Damascus against Iraq after the occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 diverted the investigation towards Libya, a country that for decades, and in particular from 1986 on when president Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, is one of America’s favourite enemies.

Yet, the rumours of Syrian, Iranian and/or Palestinian involvement never died. In December 1998 a German judge declared that a fugitive former Iranian security chief told him that the bombing was indeed ordered by Iran, but executed by the two indicted Libyans.

Despite all these doubts, the USA and UK prevailed in the Security Council. On 21 January 1992, the Council ordered Libya to extradite the two suspects to the United States or to the UK and also to cooperate with France in the investigation of the bombing of a French UTA DC-10 over Niger, in which 171 people died. France suspected four Libyans of having put the bomb on board the airliner. In 1999, a French Court condemned six Libyans in their absence and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The same Court ordered the compensation payments for the victims (33 Million $).

Libya refused during seven years the extradition of the two suspects on the grounds that the Libyan constitution forbids the extradition of its nationals, as is the case for most countries. As a result of this refusal, the Security Council, on 31 March 1992, voted resolution 748. Under the terms of this resolution all air traffic to and from Libya was forbidden while arms sales to the country were prohibited.

On 11 November 1993, the Security Council imposed, by resolution 883, more sanctions: Libyan assets abroad should be frozen, with the exception of the revenues of oil exports, and export to Libya of some equipment for the oil and gas industry was prohibited; the offices of Libyan Arab Airlines abroad had to be closed and all help to Libyan civil aviation (sale of airplanes and spare parts, training of pilots…) was also prohibited. The US, who already severed commercial and economic links with Libya and froze Libyan assets in the US in 1986, widened so its sanctions to other countries in 1996. The US Congress went even further by voting the Iran-Libyan Sanctions Act under which sanctions would be imposed on foreign countries that invest more than 40 million $ a year in the Iranian or Libyan oil and gas industries.

While refusing to hand over the suspects, Libya was seeking a way out of the problem. Colonel Qaddafi in many occasions said that he would not oppose himself if the two decided, voluntarily, to hand over themselves and insisted constantly on a fair and honest trial, that would be impossible in Scotland or the United States. He proposed different other possibilities: a trial in Libya, the jurisdiction of the Arab League, an Islamic Tribunal in the UK or elsewhere and a trial in another, neutral country. His latest proposal was a trial in the Netherlands with Scottish judges under Scottish law.

Until 1998, the United States and the United Kingdom rejected all these proposals and wanted Libya simply to hand over the suspects to them.
In the meantime, Libya started proceedings before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague which in February 1998 ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the case and concluded that Libya’s application was admissible.

In August 1998, following the ruling of the International Court of Justice, the Us and UK revised their stand and agreed to a trial in the Netherlands with a tribunal of Scottish judges. Consequently, the Security Council endorsed, on 27 August 1998, by resolution 1192 this new development and stated that all UN sanctions would be suspended as soon as the two Libyan suspects would be in the Netherlands.
In December 1998 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan went to Tripoli in the hope of convincing Libya to hand over the suspects.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands put a former US air base temporarily declared British territory at the disposal of the Scottish court and, in the United Kingdom the law was adapted to allow Scottish judges to sit abroad. Libya insisted that some questions needed to be resolved before to two could leave like, i.a. guaranties that the two, after arrival in the Netherlands, would not be put on a plane to the UK or the US and that foreign secret services would not have access to the detainees while awaiting their trial or after the trial. Another stumbling block was the place were the suspects, if convicted, would serve their prison sentences. Tripoli insisted that they should go to jail in Libya while the US and the UK wanted them to serve their terms in Scotland.

Following a Saudi-South African-UN mediation, the two suspects finally arrived for trial in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands on April 5, 1999.
United Nations sanctions imposed on Libya during seven years were suspended the same day.

On 31 January 2001, the three-judge jury found one Libyan defendant, Mr. Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. The other defendant, Mr. Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted and immediately returned to Libya. Ali Megrahi is serving his sentence in Barlinnine prison (Scotland) and he has appealed against his conviction in the European Court of Human rights. Afterwards, the United States and the UK announced that they would nevertheless maintain UN sanctions until Libya openly admitted its responsibility in the bombing and compensated the families of the victims.

On 27 July 2001the US Congress extended the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (D’Amato Act) for another five years. President Bush also renewed the National Emergency Status in regards to Libya in January 2003, arguing that Libya continues posing a threat to the US. The EU has repeatedly expressed its regrets about this decision as the Union is opposed to unilateral sanctions laws with extraterritorial effects.
In August 2003, Libya concluded an agreement with the families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing regarding compensations. These compensations included a total of 2,7 Billion $ paid in stages (1 Billion $ once the UN lift the sanctions, another 1 Billion $ when the US lift the sanctions and the rest once Libya is removed from the list of terrorist states). Following this agreement, Libya handed over a letter to the UN Security Council admitting responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and renouncing to terrorism (1). The UN Security Council voted for the definite lift of sanctions on the 12th September 2003 (the resolution was adopted by 13 votes in favour and two abstentions, the US and France).

France had threatened to use its veto right in the Security Council as the compensations agreed for the victims of the UTA plane didn’t match those of the Pan Am bombing victims. In 1999, Libya had paid an amount of 30 Million $ for compensations to victims’ families, following a judgement by a French Court. Libya finally agreed it would pay the French victims’ families compensations comparable to those of the Lockerbie bombing through the Qaddafi International Association for Charitable Organisations”, (run by the colonel’s son).

Although the US agreed to lift the UN sanctions against Libya, the Bush Administration has expressed its determination to continue with the unilateral sanctions against Tripoli. Nevertheless, there are some officials in the US Administration, particularly connected to the oil industry, who could be interested in getting back to Libya.

Libyan decision to accept responsibility still runs into controversy. Some sceptical consider that the acceptance of responsibility is not the definite proof of guilt but that this was only a way to purchase the lifting of the sanctions (this has been admitted by some Libyan officials). According to this line of thought, Libya would have all the interest in improving relations with the US, and notably, escape from the possibility of being US’ target in its war against international terrorism. On the other hand, it’s on Libyan interest to attract new Western investments and renew its oil industry which is the Libyan biggest resource.

As a result of Libyan compliance with UN resolutions, the European Commission has confirmed its willingness to normalise its relations with this country in the coming near future, notably regarding the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the new Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours: Wider Europe— Neighbourhood.

(1) Extracts from the letter sent to the UN Security Council from Libyan UN envoy Ahmed Own on the 19th August 2003:
(…)“The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has sought to cooperate in good faith throughout the past years to bring about a solution ot this matter”. (…) “Libya, as a sovereign state has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actins of its officials”.
(…)”The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which during the last two decades did, on numerous occasions, condemn all acts of terrorism in its correspondence to the General Assembly and to the Security Council, reaffirms its commitment to this policy”. (…) “In this connection, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is committed to be cooperative in the international fight against terrorism”.