'Don't worry - where there is a God, there is justice'

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They came into the court wearing white robes and coloured hats, one black, the other a deep shade of red.

Their friends in the public gallery said it was Libyan custom to wear the flowing arbayas and rounded shashiyas only on the most important of occasions. Even then, it was usually only the head of the family who did so.

This then, was appropriate. More than 11 years after 270 people were killed when Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, there can have been few trials that have taken on such significance.

And while the two defendants may or may not be the heads of their families, there can be few people in the past decade on whom the British and American authorities have placed such importance.

For such an historic and eagerly awaited occasion, an event that has been persistently delayed and postponed, the start of the trial yesterday morning at the former US airbase at Camp Zeist was almost an anti-climax. As the world's press sat behind bullet-proof glass (not installed for their protection) in an ante-room, the defendants Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, slipped into the courtroom through a side door.

Relaxed and unhurried, they took their places in the dock. They sat, without handcuffs, flanked by Scottish police officers. On the desk in front of them there were bottles of mineral water, a selection of still and sparkling.

There was little for the defendants to do yesterday, each spoke only once, confirming their names through a translator. For the remainder of the day, they sat, apparently untroubled, as the 20-minute long indictment was read out and the prosecution opened its case. Mr Megrahi's face was blank; Mr Fhimah occasionally placed a finger upon his chin, as though deep in thought. Now and then, each would fiddle with the headphones through which the court's words were being relayed to them in Arabic. What either of them made of the proceedings being played out in the courtroom front of them was anyone's guess.

The four judges - one a reserve - sat on a dais, each wearing robes bearing white crosses. The wall behind them carried a mace and the Royal Arms of Scotland with its Latin motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit"- which a Scottish official said translated literally as "Nane dare meddle wi' me".

What did come across was the men's relaxed nature. Both know about being patient: they were first indicted by the British and Americans in November 1991 and they have been in custody in the Netherlands since being handed over by the Libyans in April last year.

But there may be more to it than that. If, as both men claim, they are not guilty, then this is their chance upon the world stage to prove it.

Mr Megrahi's brother, Mohmed Ali Megrahi, 53, a retired army officer and one of seven family members in court, said he had visited the defendant the day before. "He was very good. He felt very well," he said. "He told us again that he will prove that he is not guilty. He said 'Don't worry - where there is a God, there is justice and there should be justice everywhere.' He trusts this court. I trust this court. Justice should be everywhere."

Mr Fhimah's family - 10 members of which, including his six-year-old son, have travelled to the Netherlands - were equally adamant of his innocence and their belief that this would be proved. "We are Muslim, we look to Allah, we believe in God," said his uncle, Milad Ali Fhimah. "We are not upset because it is true that they are innocent."