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The BBC's Barnaby Mason reports
"For many years it looked as though the charges would never be tested in court"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 14:16 GMT
Lockerbie legalities explained
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi (right) and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah

By BBC Legal Affairs Correspondent Joshua Rozenberg

The judge who is to preside over the trial of the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombings 11 years ago came face-to-face with them at the pre-trial hearing.

The two accused asked to be present at a preliminary hearing in the Netherlands, where their lawyers asked Lord Sutherland to throw out one of the charges and amend the others.

The charges

Lord Sutherland will preside over the trial
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah are facing three alternative charges:

  • Conspiracy to murder
  • murder
  • destroying an aircraft
In a unique legal development, they will be tried under Scottish law by three Scottish judges sitting at a converted air base in the Netherlands. The trial is due to begin in May, 2000.

A person can be charged with conspiracy to commit a crime even if he does not carry out the crime itself. All that is needed is for the accused to agree with at least one other person to commit the crime.

'No jurisdiction'

But lawyers for the two accused said a Scottish court had no jurisdiction to try them for conspiracy to murder because the conspiracy is not alleged to have taken place in Scotland.

They said the conspiracy charge required the prosecution to prove that they killed people in Scotland: if there was no proof that they murdered the people who died as a result of the Lockerbie explosion then there was no jurisdiction to convict them of conspiring to kill.

Other allegations 'irrelevant'

The crash in December 1988 killed 270 people
The accused also objected to allegations in the indictment that they were members of the Libyan intelligence services. They said those claims were irrelevant, presumably because being an intelligence agent was not, in itself, a crime.

They said allegations in the indictment that they arranged for another agent to travel on a false passport and that they obtained timers for detonating explosives were also irrelevant because they did not amount to crimes in Scottish law.

The best that the two accused could have hoped for was that Lord Sutherland would throw out the charge of conspiracy and order the remaining two charges to be re-worded.

But that would still have left the accused facing 270 charges of murder and charges of destroying an aircraft in service.

If the three judges (sitting without a jury) find them guilty of either charge, and any appeal is dismissed, they can expect to spend the rest of their lives behind bars in a Scottish prison.
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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  Europe
Lockerbie conspiracy charges to stand
26 Nov 99 |  World
Lockerbie pair challenge charge
22 Nov 99 |  World
Lockerbie defence given papers
18 Nov 99 |  World
Lockerbie trial judges named
29 Oct 99 |  World
Lockerbie charges in full
05 Apr 99 |  World
Trial follows years of bargaining
24 Aug 98 |  Lockerbie
The trail to trial

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