Lockerbie duo in court as lawyers challenge charges

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THEY ENTERED the court shortly before 10.20am, two men in well- cut suits and smart ties, looking relaxed. There was no rush, no fuss.

Neither of the men was wearing handcuffs. They were simply led to their seats by two police officers. Behind a screen of bullet-proof glass, they took their places at a table bearing nothing except bottles of mineral water and plastic cups.

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah know all about waiting patiently. It was in November 1991 that the two Libyans were first accused of bombing Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, killing 270 people.

Yesterday morning, 11 years after the bombing, the two accused appeared before the court that will decide whether they are guilty or innocent.

It is no ordinary court. Under an agreement between the United States, Britain, the United Nations and Libya, a Scottish court has been convened on a former US air base, sprawling with rain-soaked woodlands, 15 miles from the Dutch city of Utrecht. It is the first time that a Scottish court has convened in another country and the first time that a murder case will be heard without a jury.

The perimeter of the 100-acre Camp Zeist, where such history is being made, is marked by fences topped with razor wire. Armed Scottish police patrol the gates. The hearing itself is taking place in a sectioned-off area of a huge gymnasium once used by the US servicemen stationed here, and yesterday, as the legal arguments got under way, the jargon and advocacy echoed off the strip lights and bare brick walls.

Proceedings finally began when Lord Sutherland, the judge hearing the pre-trial review, entered the court behind an usher carrying a mace. On the wall behind him sat the emblem of the Scottish law courts.

Lord Sutherland listened as Bill Taylor QC, representing Mr Megrahi, 47, outlined his argument that the court had no jurisdiction to consider one of the three charges faced by the defendants - that of conspiracy to commit murder. The defence argues that any alleged conspiracy did not take place in Scotland, so the court is not "competent" to hear the charge.

The arguments ran on all day as Mr Taylor and later Richard Keene QC, representing Mr Fhimah, 43, gave legal references to support their argument, one of which was a reference to a case in Blackburn, Lancashire. All the while, behind the glass screens and mineral water, the two defendants leant towards their interpreters, who translated every word into Arabic, nodding their heads in apparent understanding.

It was dry and involved. But amid the complexities there was a reference to what took place over Lockerbie on the night of 21 December 1988, when the Boeing 747 exploded at 31,000ft, killing all 259 crew and passengers and 11 residents of the small border town on to which the wreckage fell.

"It is charged," Mr Taylor said, outlining the charge he was trying to have struck off, "that between 1 January 1985 and 21 December 1988, at various places, being members of the Libyan intelligence services, the two accused conspired together ... to further the purposes of the Libyan intelligence service by criminal means, including the use of explosive devices in the commission of acts of terrorism, and in particular the destruction of a civilian passenger aircraft and the murder of its occupants."

It was an incongruous description of an event now lodged in the public mind simply as "Lockerbie", but the defence say the wording of the charge - and their attempt to have it thrown out - is crucial. Mr Taylor said the reference to the Libyan intelligence service - both defendants claim to have been bona fide travel agents working for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta - was a "device to introduce into court other matters that would not be competent ... were this a crime of murder".

"I would have thought it was very important to give these men a fair trial and not to have them answer on behalf of the Libyan intelligence service," Mr Taylor said.

Colin Boyd QC, the Solicitor General of Scotland, argued that the conspiracy charge was valid and that the court did have jurisdiction.

The two Libyans are each charged with conspiracy, murder and contravention of the Aviation Security Act, the last two of which carry mandatory life sentences. Because the charges have been listed as alternatives, observers from the University of Glasgow's School of Law, who have been at Camp Zeist following events, point out that the court can, regardless of the evidence, convict the men on only one of them.

The introduction of the evidence will begin next February, though the defence has filed a motion asking for a delay. At that time, Lord Sutherland will return with Lord Coulsfield and Lord MacLean to hear a case that is expected to last 12 months.

In the meantime, amid the bleak buildings and wire fences of Camp Zeist, the arguments will continue today as to what charges should finally be heard.