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Law Professor Yonah Alexander on the Lockerbie verdicts

January 31, 2001
10:30 a.m. EST

(CNN) -- One of the defendants in the Lockerbie bombing trial, Abdel Baset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, has been found guilty and sentenced to 20 years before parole eligibility. His co-defendant, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty and faces no further action. The verdicts were issued Wednesday. Megrahi has the right of appeal, a process that could take over a year.

Professor Yonah Alexander is a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and director of its International Center For Terrorism Studies. He is also the director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and co-director of the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies, both of which are consortia of international universities and think tanks. In addition, Professor Alexander is a Senior Fellow, Center for International Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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US. family members of victims say they are mostly pleased with the verdicts

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U.S. President George W. Bush says Libya should accept responsibility

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Susan Cohen "I consider Gadhafi the murderer of my daughter"

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Robin Cook, British Foreign Secretary: Libya must comply with international law

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Robin Oakley European Political Editor:
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Abuzed Dodra Libyan Ambassador to UN: The Libyan state is innocent

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CNN's Walter Rodgers on how Lockerbie took the news

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Relative of Lockerbie victim Bert Ammerman: This leads to Gadhafi's doorstep

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Yonah Alexander: I have mixed feelings about this particular interview. On the one hand, the tragedy affected so many innocent people. In fact, some of my former students in Syracuse were killed in the Lockerbie attack, so I have a personal feeling about this and know personally some of the victims' families.

Chat Moderator: Two defendants were on trial. Why was only one of them, Mr. Megrahi, found guilty?

Yonah Alexander: There is no doubt that it was a fair trial. And the Scottish judges considered very carefully all the evidence before them, and they arrived at a conclusion based on the evidence that only one of the defendants, Megrahi, was guilty. And the other defendant was not guilty, due to the lack of firm evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Chat Moderator: What details of the plan of the bombing are now known as a result of this trial?

Yonah Alexander: Obviously, there are many circumstantial issues, I think, that came up at trial. In terms of the incident, there is no question related to the facts, which we have known for more than a decade.

The mid-air explosion occurred at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland and about 38 minutes after Pan Am 103 took off on the destination to the U.S. And the victimization was one of the most brutal incidents in aviation history; it's clear in terms of the number of victims-- 259 killed on the plane, including 189 Americans and 11 were killed on the ground in Lockerbie.

So the facts are known in terms of the bomb, itself -- how it was delivered in the Toshiba cassette recorder hidden in the suitcase, which was placed on the plane in Malta, and transferred to Frankfurt Airport and from there to London --and, of course, finally, the implication of the two Libyans and the fact that the footsteps were leading to Libya itself.

And we do, obviously, have now the chronology of the incident in terms of the United Nations sanctions, for example, and American and British sanctions against Libya in terms of pressure to extradite the two perpetrators. And, of course, finally, what's really important is that we know the three Scottish judges accepted the prosecutors' case that one of the defendants, Megrahi, was a Libyan intelligence officer working for the Libyan government, and he was involved in placing the Toshiba cassette recorder in the suitcase with the necessary materials for the explosion, such as the Swiss timers. And he bought some clothing in Malta to put in the suitcase and so on.

The point is that the prosecutors' case was accepted, while the defense tried to divert the plot to blow up the airplane to Syria, to the Palestinians, and perhaps to Iran. It simply did not work.

So, already the most important aspect we have to consider, basically, is what are the implications of this case. And the guilty verdict led to a life sentence for Megrahi. We have to look now at the process. What's next? That's really the key.

Question from chat room: Yonah, do think that justice was served?

Yonah Alexander: There is no doubt in my mind that justice was served partially. That is to say, the individual, the defendant Megrahi, was actually accused and was sentenced, but the villain was not in the courtroom. The actual villain is the leader of Libya, Gadhafi.

Question from chat room: Should Libya or Gadhafi face a war crime trial?

Yonah Alexander: That's one possibility, one option. Tragically, we, the international community, have a long account with Gadhafi, considering not only the case of Pan Am 103, but also other cases of criminality -- such as the 1989 UTA explosion over Niger in Africa that killed 171 people.

And there is now in France an anti-terrorism case against Gadhafi, in terms of his personal role and the bottom line complaint against Gadhafi is his long link with a terrorism enterprise. So far in that case, the French courts convicted in absentia six Libyans. In other words, they are at large, and they include the brother in law of Gadhafi.

In this case, Libya was ordered to compensate the victims' families in the amount of $33 million dollars. So the point I'm making is that when one talks about justice, one recalls a Middle East proverb that says, "Justice, you should pursue."

You have to continue to try to carry out justice to the fullest extent possible. So this case is not over until it's over, and it's unlikely it will be over simply because the international community, thus far, is not prepared to cooperate fully against the villains and the perpetrators of terrorism, particularly state sponsors of terrorism like Libya.

Chat Moderator: Officials in the United States say this case is not closed. How will the U.S. now pursue an investigation?

Yonah Alexander: First, we have to deal with the issue of the case on different levels. One, in terms of the case itself, we do have the possibility under Scottish law, that the defendant can appeal. So this can also last for about a year or so, in terms of the appeal process. And according to the procedure, it might take even seven months before the appeal is heard by the Netherlands judges. That is what is the next step.

Secondly, I think we have to consider the different civil cases against Libya by the victims' families. You have the victimization of the victims' role to play against Libya. In the U.K., the families of the victims are calling for public hearings to find out what actually happened, since we don't have all the evidence in terms of who gave the order. And then, I think you're right in terms of looking at the U.S. and U.K. role, the future relations with Libya, in particular -- for example, paying compensation to the victims of this tragedy, and sanctions that are still in place by the U.S. and U.K., and the various implications for other cases pending as I mentioned before: the UTA case against the French airliner, and other important cases to consider.

The case, for example -- unrelated -- the implications of the Pan AM 103 would be important in terms of other cases, like the India case in 1985,a mid-air explosion that killed 329 people on a flight from Canada to the U.K.

Yonah Alexander: The government of the U.S., the Bush administration, should consider what policy they will develop regarding Libya, especially when one of the accused was convicted in the case of Pan Am 103, which clearly points the finger to Gadhafi, who apparently gave the order to blow up the Pan Am 103.

Question from chat room: How did the bomb and the materials to set it off make it past airport securities?

Yonah Alexander: That's a good question, and tragically, we don't have an insurance policy that terrorists, individuals, groups and state sponsors of terrorism, such as Libya, will be prevented from placing a bomb on an airplane. There is no 100 percent security that can be provided. All we can do -- airlines, governments, industry -- is to reduce the risk and try to minimize the likelihood of attacks, such as the attack on Pan Am 103.

But as long as the international community has to face the challenge of terrorism, both on the conventional level like Pan Am 103, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow with the challenge of unconventional threats including biological, chemical, nuclear, and possibly cyber terrorism to disrupt air traffic control operations, I think the international community has to ponder the future with grave concern and mobilize all its capabilities -- civilian, police, military -- to reduce the risk.

Finally, I think what is critical in regards to security is the cost of security. Who is going to provide the funding to improve security at airports and airlines? Is it the responsibility of the government, public, or airlines? Who will determine this? For example, is the public willing to pay for security in order to protect themselves? And at what cost? These are the issues we have to consider, in terms of the challenge to our societies from terrorism on both the conventional and unconventional level.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Professor Yonah Alexander.

Yonah Alexander: Thank you very much for having me.

Professor Alexander joined the chat room via telephone from Maryland. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Wednesday, January 31, 2001.

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