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Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 10:22 GMT
Lockerbie: A public inquiry?
Wreckage
Pan Am flight 103 came down on Lockerbie in 1988
The verdicts are in on the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing, leaving the way clear for a public inquiry.

In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.

A decade later, at a meeting with the relatives of the victims, Tony Blair appeared to accept that if the trial did not answer their concerns, a public inquiry would take place.

Here, litigation expert Philip Rodney, of the Scottish law firm Burness, looks at how such an inquiry might work.

Given that there has been a trial, why is there a need for a public inquiry?

The court has heard evidence from 230 witnesses over a period of 84 days resulting in 10,232 pages of transcript.

Trial bench
The judges heard 84 days of evidence
The question before the court was whether Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, 48, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 44, put - or allowed to be put - a barometrically-fused bomb into unaccompanied luggage on Pan Am Flight 103.

The former has been convicted of murder; his co-accused has been acquitted.

As such, the trial was limited to looking at evidence which was specifically relevant to the charges. The trial was concerned with determining the guilt or innocence of two individuals on specific charges. It did not address the wider issues.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, the trial was not concerned with uncovering the whole story of what really happened to Flight 103. As the Labour MP Tam Dalyell put it, the victims are not looking for money, they are looking for truth.

What other issues could an inquiry look into?

There has been considerable speculation as to the whole circumstances leading up to and surrounding the bomb on Flight 103.

Who was ultimately behind it? Were US and UK intelligence warned about the bomb? Did the government have any prior warning? How come certain family members of FBI agents who were booked on the flight did not travel? Were there lapses in security? Where did they arise?

The trial has left crucial questions unanswered and has posed others. The terms of reference of any public inquiry would require to be defined, but it should focus on the concerns which have been identified by the families and others.

Why has an inquiry not taken place as yet?

A public inquiry does not have the authority to reach a judgement on criminal responsibility. At an inquiry, all the evidence is made available in public, with the possible effect of preventing a fair and unprejudiced trial. Accordingly, it was appropriate for the trial to be completed first.

Would the inquiry take place in public?

Yes. However, the inquiry would have the power to exclude the public, or a section of the public, where it was of the opinion that it was in the public interest expedient to do so because of the subject matter and the nature of the evidence to be given.

How does the nature of an inquiry differ from a trial?

A trial is conducted using an adversarial approach. The court does not play an active role in determining the factual truth. It acts as an arbiter on the basis of the evidence presented to it by the opposing parties. It can only make its decision based on the evidence brought to its attention by the protagonists.

At a public inquiry, however, an inquisitorial approach is taken. It takes a positive role in determining the truth and will seek the assistance of witnesses as it considers necessary.

Who could be compelled to attend?

Subject to the restricted range of exemptions, any witness could be called to attend. It would be interesting to see, given the national security issues, who would attempt to obtain immunity.

What could the outcome be?

The public inquiry could not impose sanctions. It would reach findings and make recommendations in a public report. It could not itself require prosecution nor direct any changes in procedures or the law.

However, based on the findings, further charges might follow.

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