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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Analysis: Lockerbie trial 'unbalanced'
Judges in the special scottish court
Journalists are finding it difficult to cover the trial
By Legal Affairs correspondent Joshua Rozenberg

The Lockerbie case is probably the most interesting and important criminal trial currently taking place anywhere in the world.

But you are not likely to be reading or hearing very much about it in the weeks and months to come.

Bringing the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing before a court of law was a major achievement.

But that is about as far as the compliments go.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah have denied murder, conspiracy to murder, and destroying an aircraft. They are being tried under Scots law by three judges.

Big money

The judges sit without a jury in a specially built court near Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Huge sums of money have been spent by the Scottish Court Service on providing facilities for the media, but no attempt has been made to give reporters what they actually need to cover the trial.

Baggage container
A baggage container had to be rebuilt in court

A vast structure has been erected so that 16 television reporters can simultaneously broadcast live from sheltered positions overlooking the court.

But television companies are not allowed to bring editing equipment onto the site.

Journalists have been given a huge media centre with places for 240 reporters to watch the trial on a closed circuit television link.

But the Crown Office, which is responsible for Scottish prosecutions, will not provide even the most basic information - such as who the witnesses are and how they spell their names.

Lawyer access

In any other court case, reporters normally find out what is going on by having a quiet word with the lawyers during adjournments.

But that is impossible when the lawyers are only visible through the glass.

Policeman on guard outside the special court
Security is solid

Both prosecution and defence lawyers have offices in the court building, so you can not even see them at lunchtime. This no doubt suits the prosecution very well.

The Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, seems pleasant enough when you ambush him in the car park but you can tell he would much rather not be answering difficult questions.

Why, for example, does an official from the United States Justice Department sit alongside prosecution lawyers in court?

Why did the Lord Advocate run out of witnesses on several occasions during the early days of the trial, forcing unnecessary adjournments?

Needless evidence

The two accused do not deny that a plane exploded over Lockerbie, killing 270 people.

Even the judges got fed up with hearing an endless succession of police officers explain which piece of wreckage was found in which particular field. Why couldn't the prosecutor have agreed the uncontroversial evidence with defence lawyers in advance?

Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah is one of the accused
Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah has denied murder

The Crown Office in Edinburgh is about as uncommunicative today as its nearest English equivalent, the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, was some 15 years ago.

All this would have mattered less if the media had more to go on than the outline of the prosecution's case contained in the formal indictment.

In English trials the prosecution summarises the case against the defendant in an opening speech, making it easier to understand the significance of the evidence when it comes.

Scottish law

There are no opening speeches in Scottish criminal trials, presumably to avoid the risk that juries will decide cases on the strength of what's alleged rather than what can be proved. But what harm would an opening speech have done in a case where there is no jury?

Attempts to fill the information gap were made by a group of academics from Glasgow University.

Unfortunately one of their number was a retired diplomat, Andrew Fulton, who had spent time in Saigon and East Berlin. He was not to be seen again after an article in the British newspaper The Guardian guessed he must be from MI6, the British intelligence service.

In this climate of conspiracy, it is hardly surprising that the Sunday Herald newspaper ran a story in Scotland last month headlined 'Lockerbie report leaves trial in chaos'.

The story, that the prosecution had been forced to seek an adjournment because one of its star witnesses had cast doubt on where the bomb had been positioned on Pan Am 103, was roundly and convincingly denied by the Lord Advocate.

But two things were true.

A different prosecution witness, from the government's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, admitted that he had wrongly calculated the likely position of the bomb on the plane.

This could be crucial in establishing whether it was in the suitcase allegedly put on the plane in Malta by the two accused.

The prosecution were forced to adjourn while it examined new scientific evidence.

Nearly two weeks were lost.

Wiring

While that was going on, somebody rewired the courtroom; as a result, the sound system no longer worked and another day was wasted while technicians fixed it.

Defence advocates had told the prosecution they wanted a crucial piece of evidence brought into court - a wrecked baggage container in which the bomb was allegedly placed.

Prosecution lawyers pointed out that none of the doors in the specially-built courtroom was wide enough so another day was lost while the baggage container was cut into two pieces.

It would be wrong to blame the Lord Advocate for everything that has gone wrong.

Colin Boyd himself admitted he was not ready for the start of the trial.

The impression is that the defence have all the best tunes.

With a trial as unbalanced as this, the fear is that justice will be the loser.

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See also:

05 Jun 00 | World
Iran blamed for Lockerbie bomb
31 May 00 | World
Case 'not on container floor'
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