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UN: After Verdict, Status Of Libya Still Unclear

  • Robert McMahon

The conviction of a Libyan intelligence officer in the Lockerbie bombing signals an end to one of the most extraordinary international criminal trials ever held. But Libya's status in the world community and the prospect for sanctions to be formally lifted is uncertain. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the still unresolved issues.

United Nations, 1 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The decision to convict one Libyan man in the Lockerbie bombing and acquit another has shifted attention to the UN Security Council, where the fate of Libyan sanctions must now be decided.

Security Council members told reporters yesterday that there will be no decision soon on the sanctions. Council resolutions setting up the sanctions nearly 10 years ago require the Libyan authorities to accept responsibility for the action of its officials, renounce terrorism and comply with requests for compensation for the victims.

U.S. and British officials yesterday stressed these requirements must be satisfied before sanctions can be lifted. The council did suspend the sanctions two years ago after Libya surrendered two men to the Scottish court hearing the case in the Netherlands.

The British ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, told reporters that he and the acting U.S. ambassador have already discussed the matter with Libya's representative at the UN and will hold further talks soon. Libyan officials yesterday insisted that their government was not on trial in the Netherlands but Greenstock said some sort of statement accepting responsibility was still required.

"They will have to make their expression of acceptance of responsibility in their own terms, but the court has found guilty somebody who was quite clearly and factually a member of a Libyan service."

The ruling by the three-member panel of Scottish judges said that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was guilty of murder in the 1988 bombing of a passenger jet, which killed 270 people.

It based its decision on evidence placing al-Megrahi in Malta at the time a bomb was planted in the suitcase that eventually ended up in the Pan Am jet in London. Shortly after the verdict, the court sentenced al-Megrahi to 20 years in prison. He said he will appeal the decision.

The Scottish judges acquitted the second defendant, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, finding there was not enough evidence to connect him to the crime.

The court also said that it accepted evidence that al-Megrahi was a member of the Libyan intelligence service. This has implications for Libya's dealings with the UN Security Council as well as potential civil lawsuits in the United States.

The general reaction from relatives of the victims yesterday was that the verdict proved it was a case of state-sponsored terrorism and that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi should now be prosecuted. George Williams is a relative of one of the American victims:

"This is the culmination of 13 years of hard work but it's not the end. Now we go after Gadhafi."

But the Security Council could eventually decide to formally lift sanctions if Libya proves cooperative. The government in Tripoli said yesterday said it accepted the ruling of the Scottish judges and it would pay appropriate compensation to the victims. Libya does have the sympathy of some UN members, including the unofficial grouping of countries called the non-aligned movement.

China's deputy ambassador to the UN, Shen Guofang, told reporters yesterday he hoped the issue could be resolved soon.

"We should also take into consideration the cooperation so far the Libyan side has provided and we believe that the sanctions should be lifted as soon as possible."

But the Security Council has also signaled its concern about terrorism -- most recently in voting for tough new sanctions against the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan -- and will likely move slowly before acting on the Libyan sanctions.

Yesterday's ruling followed a long diplomatic dispute between Libya on one side and the United States and Britain on the other. Faced with sanctions from both the United States and the United Nations and increasing isolation, Libya finally agreed to turn over its two suspects for trial.

But it was not until the intercession of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and South African President Nelson Mandela that Libya agreed to the arrangement whereby Scottish judges would preside over a trial in the Netherlands.

The United Nations legal counsel, Hans Corell, told reporters yesterday the trial had opened up a new chapter in international law.

"The fact that this trial took place is an extraordinary event. It is unprecedented. Never before has an effort of this kind been undertaken."

The trial cost an estimated $80 million. There were 85 days of hearings in which 235 witnesses presented more than 10,000 pages of testimony. The judges' 82-page opinion said the evidence clearly pointed to al-Megrahi's guilt. The culpability of Libya will continue to be debated.