The realisation of a trial in a third country, on a chunk of territory temporarily ceded to the jurisdiction of the country in which a crime took place, is a historic legal event of international significance. The name Zeist, where the trial will be held, will be engraved in the annals of 20th-century European history.
Leave aside the Byzantine intricacies of the Lockerbie saga; they are so complex that some of those involved would qualify for the status of Professor of Lockerbie Studies. Like the Falklands war, it will doubtless become a special subject for those doing part two of their history degree.
Are there general conclusions to be reached? At first glance, perhaps not. Lockerbie is hopefully unique. The scale of the murder, the number of countries involved, the international interface between the politics of the Arab world and those of the West, and much else. At another level, Lockerbie makes the case for an international tribunal on terrorism, so ably deployed by Professor Paul Wilkinson of St Andrews and others.
Other considerations apart, such an approach might mean that crimes were dealt with expeditiously rather than withholding alleged evidence for the requirements of a court and waiting for a decade, after which memories could fade and key witnesses may have died.
I have every confidence in the Scottish legal system, as befits the son- in-law of a judge of the High Court. But it is redoubled by the knowledge that the judges chosen will be all too aware that they have a place in legal and political history, far in excess of reputation involved in any other case in which they may have been involved. The last thing for which those chosen would want to be remembered is involvement in what was seen by history as a botched verdict.
For some years, the campaigners felt that it would be right to have five judges, at least two of whom should be from the Arab world. However, the argument that was thrown in our face time and again was that it would be inappropriate and a bad reflection on the Scottish legal system if the trial were not to take place on Scottish soil.
We recognised that there was never a hope that the Libyans would agree to any such venue. And indeed they can be forgiven for that. I have a personal apology from Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the BBC, for a statement on a BBC radio programme referring to "the bombers". When they surveyed the British press and heard broadcasts, it is not surprising that the Libyan government judged that their citizens would not get a fair trial in a country with whom they had no extradition treaty.
Indeed, if the boot had been on the other foot and it was proposed that two Scots whom we believed to be innocent were to be sent to Libya, I doubt if any British government would have given the go-ahead and allowed our nationals to be treated in such a way.
Another unique feature was the sheer sustained determination of a truly remarkable group of relatives of the victims, strengthened by the fact that they were not asking for money. There was Pamela Dix, the secretary, who lost her brother and had all the efficiency of the able civil servant that she is. There was Martin Cadman, who lost his son Bill with a remarkable musical future in front of him, who would stand up to any Minister of the Crown in argument. There was the Reverend John Mosey and his German wife, who lost their daughter Helga and were determined that the truth of what may or may not have happened at the Rhein/Main Airport should be known, even if it meant devoting their lives to the cause of truth. And along with many others, there was the truly remarkable Dr Jim Swire, whom I learnt at an early stage had been in the Eton house of one of my own teachers, Richard Martineau, which told me that he was likely to be able to handle the details of the whole saga, to the greatest effect.
The great pity is that the Crown Office, supported by George Robertson when Labour was in opposition, did not agree to the amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill allowing a trial in a third country, which was put forward by Alan Stewart in 1995. Had that initiative been accepted, I believe that Robert Black, Professor of Scottish Law in the University of Edinburgh and father of the idea of a trial in a third country, would have progressed four long years ago.
The resistance came from the Crown Office, partly because of amour propre on behalf of Scottish law, and partly (so it was and still is widely suspected) because they did not have the evidence against the Libyan suspects they claimed to have had.
On account of the Contempt of Court Act, I must be careful about discussing the case itself. But it is legitimate to point out that the Crown Office was urged from the beginning to make contact with the Libyan lawyers at Zurich or elsewhere at least to discuss the matter. Their failure to do so led to one of the great problems of Lockerbie: how could any progress be made when, lawyer to lawyer, we were unwilling to have conversations with a country with whom we had no extradition treaty.
The Libyans understandably wondered why the West should have alighted on them two years after the crime was committed. And indeed, it was extraordinary that as early as March 1989 Paul Channon, then secretary of state for trade and industry and the minister responsible, should have told six lobby journalists in the Garrick Club that he was confident that arrests would be made within a matter of weeks, if not days. Paul Channon is neither a liar nor a fantasist. I will always believe that he believed that such arrests would be made. But where? At that time, Libya was not in the frame. The Libyans could have been forgiven for supposing that they had been picked out as a matter of political convenience at a time when the West did not want to offend either Syria or Iran at the start of the Gulf war against Iraq.
There was something even more extraordinary. When Mrs Thatcher published her 800-page autobiography, she did not mention Lockerbie once. What she did say, in justification of the 1986 raid on Tripoli and Bengazi by bombers based in Britain, was that such action had prevented "the much vaunted" Libyan action against the West from taking place. With her access to intelligence, how could she have written that if she believed the Libyans were responsible for Lockerbie?
In these circumstances, the trial to take place in Holland is also de facto a public inquiry - a public inquiry for which the relatives asked Cecil Parkinson, to which he agreed with the proviso that he would have to consult his colleagues. He then had to go back to the relatives somewhat shamefacedly and tell them that his colleagues had not agreed to the public inquiry.
We can only guess which colleague at that time had either the inclination or the power to tell Parkinson, then in his heyday, what he should or should not do. Why did she stop it? This is one of the key questions to which we will hopefully get an answer at Zeist.
One consequence of the trial has been under-examined in the public print. If it is found that Pan Am were not guilty of negligence over an alleged suitcase from Malta at the Rhein/Main airport, responsibility of the airline would crumble.
The situation would become even more fraught if there were no convincing explanation for the US Government warning to VIPs in their Moscow embassy not to travel home at Christmas 1988 by Pan Am out of Frankfurt.
The Lockerbie disaster was the straw which broke the camel's back in that it pushed Pan Am into liquidation. No one will be watching this extraordinary trial more carefully than the lawyers of the Pan Am executors. Pandora's Box will be opened at Zeist.
The author is Labour MP for LinlithgowReuse content