Justice hangs in the cold January air

In a bleak corner of The Netherlands, the trial ofthe alleged Lockerbie bombers is nearing its conclusion
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The Independent Online

Midwinter in the middle of the Netherlands is bleak indeed, and nowhere more so than in the little corner of Scotland that has been carved out of Camp Zeist, an air base in the dim countryside between Utrecht and Amersfoort.

Midwinter in the middle of the Netherlands is bleak indeed, and nowhere more so than in the little corner of Scotland that has been carved out of Camp Zeist, an air base in the dim countryside between Utrecht and Amersfoort.

Here the eight-month trial of two Libyans charged with blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie 12 years ago is reaching its climax, with a verdict possible before the end of the month. That is far from evident, however, as one pulls off the A28 motorway in search of a discreet sign reading "Scottish Court in the Netherlands". Once past the main gate, where Scottish policemen and employees of a Dutch security company conduct microscopic searches of vehicles and their passengers beneath the Union flag and a Scottish saltire, the site seems almost desolate.

In the feeble light of January, even the pines and silver birches seem to huddle against the freezing wind. The roar of the motorway and the cries of schoolchildren visiting the Dutch air force museum next door drift across quarter-full car parks and empty roads, named after streets in Glasgow. The press centre, full when the trial began in May, is barely ticking over; the court building, a five-minute walk away past the prison compound, where the only sign of activity is the faint hum of electricity through the wires topping the 20ft walls, appears equally hushed.

It is only when one has penetrated yet more security and entered the public gallery of the courtroom that any life or colour appears. Encased behind a floor-to-ceiling glass screen is a tableau of Scottish justice: mace, wigs, robes and all. Four Scottish law lords, one a reserve, court officials, prosecution and defence teams proceed exactly as they would in Edinburgh. The only reminder, in fact, that this is not Scotland is the presence of the accused, both in red fezzes and Arab robes. They sit off to one side, almost as if to avoid spoiling the illusion.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, 48, a senior official of Libyan intelligence - according to the prosecution - looks more abstracted than does his co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 43, who has a Groucho Marx moustache and glasses, but both lean forward as Mr Megrahi's counsel, William Taylor QC, seeks to show that the bombing, far from being their responsibility, could have been carried out by a Syrian-backed Palestinian terrorist group.

It is day 80 of the case, and Mr Taylor is making his final arguments. He has been described as a "streetwise criminal silk", but this is dry, legalistic stuff, with repeated references to page and paragraph numbers. Everyone in the public gallery has to listen to the proceedings through headsets; Mr Taylor's rumbling brogue pauses every now and then to allow the Arabic translation, a ghostly twitter through the Libyan observers' earphones, to catch up.

More than £50m and years of diplomatic wrangling have gone into the appearance of the two Libyans in this court, but after the drama of the first week, when witnesses described fire falling from the sky over Lockerbie on the night of 21 December 1988, and a prosecution QC slowly read out all the names of the dead, the trial has largely faded from view. One or two witnesses seemed to promise crucial evidence, only to disappoint: the bomb was allegedly wrapped in clothing bought in a shop in Malta, but the owner could not positively identify Mr Megrahi as the man he remembered buying similar clothing. The Swiss manufacturer of the timing device used in the explosion said he supplied them only to Libya, but later admitted selling them also to the Stasi, the former East German intelligence service, which co-operated with Syria in backing Palestinian terrorist organisations.

That left Abdul Majid Giaka, a Libyan spy who defected to the CIA. Emerging from a decade under the US witness protection programme, he was hidden behind screens as he gave evidence, and his voice was electronically distorted before it was transmitted through the headphones. He said Mr Fhimah had once shown him enough explosives in his desk drawer "to blow up the whole of Malta", and that he had watched the two accused take a Samsonite suitcase, flown in from Libya, unaccompanied through customs. Although the defence asked if he had heard of Walter Mitty, and pointed out that he had not mentioned the suspects until the day after the CIA threatened to cut off his payments unless he came up with better information, the judges dismissed a motion that Mr Fhimah had no case to answer.

From there the case returned into obscurity, and its resumption after the Christmas recess was little-noticed. Last week's flurry of legal moves, which suddenly brought the endgame into view, has not yet had much impact. The defence abruptly closed its case after efforts to obtain evidence from Syria failed; the prosecution then announced that it was going for broke. Lesser charges against the accused were dropped, and the Crown now wants the court to find them guilty only of the main count of murder: that they hid the bomb on a suitcase which went as unaccompanied baggage from Malta via Frankfurt to Heathrow, where it was loaded on board Pan Am flight 103.

Mr Taylor's final argument, during which he has pried away at every crack in what the prosecution admits is a circumstantial case, will end this week. Mr Fhimah's counsel, Robert Keen QC, will finish before the end of the week, and then it will be over to the judges. In theory their verdict could take weeks, but most legal observers expect a much quicker conclusion.

Even if both are convicted, however, and sentenced to life in the special suite prepared for them in Barlinnie prison, the question will linger: what has been the point of this trial?

The long delay in bringing the proceedings has given them an air of history. When Pan Am 103 was destroyed, Ronald Reagan was president; by the time the verdict emerges, Bill Clinton, will have left office. In 1988 the Cold War was not over, and America saw it as its duty to fight Communism wherever it reared its head. Now organisations like the Stasi are long gone, and the US is about to get a president who says he will be slow to intervene where American interests are not directly threatened. Some of George W Bush's aides would like to pull US peace-keepers out of the Balkans if they could.

Soon after the Lockerbie bombing, suspicion fell on Syria, which backed Palestinian groups such as the one the defence considers responsible. But the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, was necessary to the US, in Lebanon and, crucially, in the Gulf War two years later. It was around then that the spotlight fell on Libya and its maverick president, Muammar Gaddafi. Nearly a decade later, President Assad's son is trying to maintain the family's rule of Syria following the death of his father, but Mr Gaddafi is still there. Western sanctions were lifted after he handed over the two suspects, and even before the trial began, Britain and Libya restored full diplomatic relations.

For the Libyan leader, the deal that established this Scottish outpost on Dutch soil has borne fruit, and a guilty verdict will not change that. Meanwhile, the 60,000 quietly prosperous inhabitants of the nearby town of Zeist, known locally for its retirement homes and financial institutions, have seen an influx of Scottish policemen, civil servants and jailers, who have joined the local football league, lent an exotic touch with their kilts at civic events and boosted hotel and restaurant takings. "I have improved my English, though my accent has completely changed," said a Dutch guard, proving the point by talking about his "wee car".

The Scots may not be leaving Zeist just yet, since any appeal will be heard there too. The mayor, Ruud Boekhoven, appealed to the populace of 60,000 to welcome the families of the victims, and said many lasting friendships had been formed. "Several of our families have been over to Lockerbie to stay with people they first met here," he said. "This case has made the name of our town known all over the world."

But the Dutch are simply onlookers. If the most expensive case in British legal history has any meaning, it should be for the relatives of the 270 dead. Even here, however, there have been stark differences, with the largest group - the American families - quarrelling over a class action suit and over the approach to be taken to the US authorities.

"We have had none of that, fortunately," said Jim Swire, spokesman for the British families. "If the two are found guilty, we will accept that. If they are acquitted, the search for the perpetrators will go on. But the end-point for the court is not the end-point for us.

"There has to be an inquiry after this trial into the mistakes Britain made - not to pin the blame on individuals, but to find out why our loved ones weren't protected. To some extent this case has hindered that, because for 12 years the British authorities have been able to claim that most matters were sub judice. Even if these men are acquitted and others put on trial, that must not be allowed to obstruct the search for the truth any longer."