Leading Article: Only sanctions will sway Gaddafi

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LEGAL argument will not determine whether two Libyans charged with the Lockerbie bombing are ever tried. The judge of that will be Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. If the Libyan leader wants these men to face their accusers, then insurmountable obstacles will disappear with surprising ease. However, if he steadfastly objects, no compromise - trial in a neutral third country or disclosure of all prosecuting evidence - will persuade the defendants to appear before a jury.

Evidently, the Tripoli regime has yet to see its best interests being served by ordering the men to stand trial. It is content to see the case bogged down in a legal quagmire. Entreaties from politicians or even the relatives of the 270 people killed on Pan Am 103 will make no difference. That is why the West will have to strengthen economic sanctions to focus Col Gaddafi's mind. An air and arms embargo is already making life difficult for the Libyan middle classes: their morale-boosting annual pilgrimages to Harrods have become circuitous. Tougher measures freezing bank accounts held abroad and a ban on equipment sales to the oil industry could cripple the economy. The United Nations Security Council, which is due to consider such a move, can no longer afford to delay increasingly punitive sanctions.

Only such resolute action could make the Libyan leader let justice take its course. Even with such sanctions, the chances are remote of this case reaching court. A trial that investigated the full extent of the Lockerbie conspiracy could implicate his highest officials, perhaps even himself. The charges against the two suspects specifically mention unnamed 'others'. Only fear of economic chaos endangering his regime would persuade Col Gaddafi to expose himself to the chance of being held personally responsible for the bombing.

Lawyers defending the two accused will not have been party to Col Gaddafi's manoeuvrings. Their job is to ensure that their clients suffer no injustice. They have claimed that prejudicial publicity makes a fair trial impossible in Scotland or the United States. That is surely wrong. Juries are well able to differentiate between past reports and the evidence before them: 50 per cent of trials contested in Britain lead to acquittals. In both countries, juries can be vetted.

But civil rights - never an overriding concern of the Libyan leader - will not decide the outcome of this affair. The harsh realities of international sanctions rather than legal argument will be the crucial factor if the Colonel's mind is to be changed.