Twelve years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, a Libyan intelligence agent was convicted Wednesday of murdering 270 people in the blast, but his co-defendant was acquitted and quickly headed for home in Libya.
The guilty verdict for Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, 48, was met with a collective gasp--and an emotional collapse--from victims' relatives and with stony silence from the Libyans' families in separate areas of the high-security court gallery.
A panel of three Scottish judges acquitted Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 44, of murder charges in connection with the December 1988 bombing of the New York-bound flight and gave Megrahi a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
Although the verdicts by the judges were unanimous, Megrahi's brother Mohammed Ali indicated that he would appeal the "strange decision." Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, however, said his country respects the verdict.
The conviction of a Libyan government agent proved a stunning climax to the nine-month, nearly $90-million trial and cast a shadow over European moves to gradually normalize relations with the Tripoli regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi.
"The clear inference which we draw from this evidence is that the conception, planning and execution of the plot which led to the planting of the explosive device was of Libyan origin," the judges wrote in their 82-page decision.
Many of the victims' families--who say they will now proceed with civil lawsuits against Libya--urged their governments in Washington and London to go after Kadafi now.
"These are the jokers in the pack. Now we want the kings," said Betty Thomas of Wales, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the explosion.
President Bush applauded the conviction and said Libya must take responsibility for the attack. The White House also issued a statement saying that the guilty verdict is not enough to warrant an end to U.N. sanctions against Tripoli.
The British government, which has already resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli, said that it expects Libya to pay compensation of at least $700 million to the families and that Libya's leaders still must "prove to the international community that they have definitively renounced terrorism."
The day's drama was not in declarations from national capitals, however, but in an isolated courtroom built on a former U.S. military base to hear the Lockerbie case, which was tried by a Scottish court in the Netherlands under an agreement the U.S. and British governments reached with Libya.
Intense security measures included sniffer dogs, metal detectors and body searches for those wishing to enter the public gallery, separated from the courtroom by bulletproof glass. Scottish police bearing automatic rifles stood guard by the dozens.
The accused entered the courtroom wearing traditional Arab robes, Megrahi with a white shashiya hat and Fhimah with a black one, to learn their fate.
On the other side of the glass, families of the Lockerbie victims wore buttons with pictures of the dead and tense smiles. They carried boxes of tissues and exchanged words of encouragement for what they appeared to think would be bad news. The judges had returned a decision quickly, and that most likely meant acquittal, they reasoned.
The judges entered briskly in white wigs and red robes, bowed to the court and sat down. The presiding judge, Lord Sutherland, quickly read out Megrahi's guilty verdict, and the families' disbelief was audible in shocked gasps.
Megrahi was convicted of murder for having planted an unaccompanied suitcase containing a bomb-laden radio-cassette player aboard the flight.
Fhimah's acquittal also drew gasps, but the two defendants remained impassive.
As the chief prosecutor rose to appeal for a harsh sentence, Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, fell over in his seat.
Chief prosecutor Colin Boyd recited a litany of bombing victims for the judges: "Something of the scale of the impact can be gleaned from the fact that more than 400 parents lost a son or a daughter. Forty-six parents lost their only child," he said as court officials and relatives rushed to the frail Swire's side.
"He's dead," one person whispered fearfully.
"Sixty-five women were widowed, and 11 men lost their wives," Boyd continued.
Someone searched for a pulse on Swire's wrist and loosened the collar and tie below his gray face.
"More than 140 children lost a parent, and seven children lost both parents," Boyd concluded.
Four people carried Swire out of the gallery as he began to come around. He was taken to the hospital and returned later. Swire, who sat through most of the trial, has worked tirelessly for the last 12 years on behalf of the British families of Pan Am 103 victims.
In a later session, the judges sentenced Megrahi to life in prison but said that because of his age and because he would be held in a foreign prison, he would be eligible for parole consideration after 20 years. Megrahi has 14 days to appeal, a period during which he may choose to remain in the Netherlands. But if he loses his appeal, he will serve his sentence in Scotland.
Relatives who had celebrated the guilty verdict condemned what they saw as a light sentence.
"Twenty years is outrageous," said Peter Lowenstein, whose son died on the plane. "It works out to less than one month per life."
For the families, the next step is a set of civil lawsuits filed against the government of Libya; its security organization; Libyan Arab Airlines; and Megrahi and Fhimah.
"The verdict is wonderful for us," said James Kreindler, a lawyer for the families. "We now have a judicial finding that Megrahi was acting as an agent or employee for Libya and that the state is responsible for his actions."
The suits were filed in U.S. District Court in New York in 1996 under a law allowing victims to sue nations for terrorist acts. They seek billions of dollars in punitive damages on behalf of all the victims' relatives. Kreindler said that Libya has several billion dollars in frozen assets in the United States, which would make it easier for families to collect any compensation due them. A single judge will rule on the case in New York, and Kreindler said he expects to have a judgment this year.
Megrahi and Fhimah were both accused of being Libyan intelligence agents working for Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa Airport in Malta. The prosecution had accused Megrahi and Fhimah of packing the bomb-laden radio-cassette recorder into a brown Samsonite suitcase that they loaded onto a flight in Malta bound for Frankfurt, Germany, with baggage tags forwarding it onto New York-bound Pan Am 103 in London.
In their decision, the judges relied heavily on the testimony of a Malta shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as the man who had bought the clothing from his store that was later found to have been wrapped around the bomb inside the suitcase.
The judges said they also were swayed by evidence showing that Megrahi had used a false Libyan passport to enter Malta the day before the bombing and leave the next day. "It was never used again," the judges said.
On the other hand, the judges dismissed the testimony from a key prosecution witness, a CIA double agent who said that he saw Megrahi at Luqa Airport with a brown Samsonite bag Dec. 20, accompanied by Fhimah.
Without that testimony, the judges said, "there is no evidence at all to suggest that the second accused [Fhimah] was even at Luqa Airport."
The judges dismissed Fhimah's diary entry entered as evidence that stated, "Take tags from Air Malta" accompanied by an "OK." The prosecution argument that Fhimah helped place the explosives on board the flight to Frankfurt was "in the realm of speculation," the decision said.
The defense had argued that the bombing was the work of Syrian-based Palestinian extremists, a theory supported by some of the victims' families.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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A Verdict, 12 Years Later
The defendants and sequence of events in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed all 259 on board and 11 on the ground in December 1988. Wednesday, one of two defendants was convicted.
Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, 48:
Security chief for Libyan Arab Airlines. Formerly director of Center for Strategic Studies in Libya. Prosecutors said he bought clothes contained in suitcase holding bomb.
Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 44: Libyan airline station manager in Malta who allegedly had access to Air Malta luggage tags. Described as member of Libyan intelligence service.
The Next Step
Megrahi has 14 days to appeal his conviction, which carries a mandatory life sentence in a Scottish prison. The ruling means that Fhimah is free to return to Libya.
Trail of bomb According to prosecutors:
Luqa Airport, Malta: Suitcase containing bomb is placed in cargo hold of flight to Germany.
Frankfurt International: Suitcase transferred to London-bound Pan Am flight.
Heathrow Airport, London: Flight 103 takes off for New York and Detroit.
31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland: Timer detonates bomb. Aircraft rips apart, plunges six miles to Earth.
Sources: Times staff and wire reports