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Judges query PanAm bomb evidence



CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands -- Serious legal questions have been raised over the validity of the prosecution's case in the Lockerbie bombing trial.

Judges hearing an appeal by Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi said the prosecution's claim of where and how the bomb was loaded onto the airplane was contradicted by airport luggage records presented at evidence during the original trial.

One of the five-strong panel said the prosecution's version of events was "difficult to follow rationally."

Prosecutors say the bomb, hidden in a radio cassette player concealed in a brown suitcase, was checked in at Malta by al-Megrahi and transferred to Pan Am Flight 103.

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But Judge Kenneth Osborne told the prosecution team: "There is considerable and quite convincing evidence that that could not have happened."

The device exploded shortly after the Boeing 747 took-off from Heathrow Airport on December 21, 1988, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland.

Al-Megrahi, who was convicted in January 2001 of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with no option of parole for 20 years, launched an appeal which is being heard at Camp Zeist, in The Netherlands.

His lawyers say Maltese baggage records countered the key prosecution argument that an unaccompanied Samsonite suitcase was loaded onto an aircraft in Malta that connected with the doomed New-York bound jetliner in London.

Osborne said that testimony from airport officials "indicates that there was not an unaccompanied bag on that airplane."

"It's quite difficult to follow rationally," he added.

Turnbull admitted the evidence is circumstantial and that the suspect's actions were "not incriminating" when reviewed separately.

"It is the combination of all of the circumstances that is important," Turnbull said, arguing that Maltese clothing purchased by al-Megrahi and found in the wreckage proved the bomb originated in Malta.

Al Megrahi's lawyers say that the original trial judges made serious errors and insist the bomb could not have been loaded in Malta.

The verdict in the original trial accepted that the suitcase bomb was loaded in Malta and flown from there via Frankfurt to London Heathrow.

But the original panel of three judges acknowledged there was no explanation of how the rigged suitcase got through very tight security at Malta's Luqa airport onto Air Malta flight KM 180.

"The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM 180 is a major difficulty for the Crown (prosecution) case," the written verdict read.

Osborne questioned why a terrorist would send the bomb on such a long journey, with transfers in Frankfurt and London, at the risk the bomb could go off at the wrong time or on the wrong target.

"He would be taking a lot of chances of failure by having the bomb ingested in Malta and not in Heathrow," Osborne suggested.

"All sorts of things could have gone wrong with the sequence of flights."

The appellate court is expected to rule later this week on whether to admit new testimony from Ray Manly, a security guard at Heathrow airport.

Manly has said publicly he discovered a break-in at a Pan Am luggage depot the night before the bombing -- but he was not asked to give evidence in the original trial.

Defence lawyer William Taylor argued that if the trial judges had known of the break-in, it would have created "reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the appellant."

The appeal is being heard in the same courtroom at Camp Zeist, a former air force base in the Netherlands, that the original nine-month trial was held in 2000.

Libyan co-defendant Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima was acquitted at the original trial.



 
 
 
 


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