Sanctions against Libya lifted after eight years.
A day later Italy's Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, was heading towards Tripoli on the first official flight made by a European carrier in seven years. He was the first of many high-ranking foreign officials expected in Libya to renew trade and diplomatic links.
For eight years, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's idiosyncratic leader (he refuses to be called president) rejected requests to hand over the two suspects - accused by America and Britain in 1991 of planting the bomb inside the PanAm airliner that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988 - for trial. Now they are in the hands of the court, justice, in theory, will be seen to be done.
Reality, the relatives of Lockerbie victims argue, is something different. Resolving the dispute will be slow and possibly unsatisfactory for all concerned. Under Scottish law the court held a pro-forma committal hearing early last month (April), after which the trial would normally begin in 110 days. Citing the 10 years the prosecution has had to prepare its case, the defence lawyers, are likely to ask for more time.
Once the hearing starts, expect a lengthy courtroom drama - televised and promising to be more popular internationally than the trial of OJ Simpson - with the likelihood of an appeal, it could be 2002 before a final verdict is reached.
"The diplomatic deadlock was not entirely, the fault of Colonel Gaddafi," said one Middle Eastern official who mediated in the crisis. "It was the result of both sides stubbornly digging their heels in."
The Libyan leader had a number of reasons for refusing a trial in the West, among them a desire to avoid offending the suspects' tribes - which he needs for internal support - and also concern about his own standing in the third world as a paragon of anti-Western defiance. But the main reason, an Egyptian source said, was Colonel Gaddafi's own fear of exposing the unsavoury activities of his intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat.
British and Americans officials insist that there are is no hidden agenda behind the deal and UN officials are refusing to give more details. However, there is a suspicion that Colonel Gaddafi would not have agreed to the trial unless he had received assurances the process would stop short of burrowing its way to the core layers of his Mukhabarat.
For years the Libyans played a game of cat and mouse over the Lockerbie suspects. "It would be impossible to find an unbiased jury in Britain or America," Colonel Gaddafi argued. He tried everything to avoid a trial in the West, from filing a complaint against Britain and the US before the World Court at The Hague, to a bizarre offer to trade the suspects for the American pilots who bombed Tripoli in 1986.
The possibility of a breakthrough dawned in 1994 when Robert Black, a professor of law from Edinburgh University and the head of the Libyan defence team, met with Dr Esmar Abdel-Meguid, the Secretary-General of the Arab league in Cairo in September 1994 and worked out a formula for a trial in a neutral country before a panel of international judges.
With the help of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Dr Abdel-Meguid introduced the idea as an Arab League initiative and sold it to Colonel Gaddafi in January 1995 to be presented as a joint Libyan-Arab League proposal. "Gaddafi would have never accepted the formula had he known then it was mainly a Scottish idea," an Arab League official told The Middle East.
Egypt, a staunch ally of the US, played a crucial role in the early years of the crisis. The Egyptians convinced the Americans who wanted to get rid of Colonel Gaddafi and were training special forces in Texas to execute their aims - that it would be better to live with the devil they know.
Four years of complex diplomatic manoeuvering by the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity, President Mubarak of Egypt, Lord Steel of Ettrick, the former British Liberal leader, Jimmy Carter, the former American president, the Russians, the United Nations and the Saudis, reached a climax with the involvement of President Nelson Mandela, whose magic touch reached the parts of Gaddafi's stubbornness that other diplomacy could not reach.
During that time, America and Britain's ruling Conservative government were still insisting on Scotland or the United States as a venue for the trial. They could not, however, rustle up support in the Security Council for an oil embargo, the one sanction that would have most hurt Libya and perhaps shortened its resistance.
However, the well-aimed sanctions can take much of the credit for Gaddafi's eventual capitulation: they had a precise aim, they severely inconvenienced Libya's ruling elite - by placing an embargo on air transport, arms dealing, some oil parts purchase and financial transactions - without harming ordinary citizens. In the end, Britain and the US got their suspects.
In his first public statement as the two suspects flew to the Netherlands, State Department spokesman James Rubin credited sanctions and the firm stand by taken the two American administrations (George Bush's and Bill Clinton's), for being the instruments that brought Libya to heel.
The British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who was deeply involved in the diplomatic manoeuvering leading up to the hand over, said there will now be a criminal trial for the act of mass murder. "The relatives of all those who died will have their first opportunity to hear all the evidence in open court". Mr Cook said one of the most difficult aspects of the case was that the government had not been able to tell relatives of the victims of the explosion "what we know and suspect happened to their loved ones". Families of the 270 victims have been desperate for a trial to be held, not least because they have still not heard all the evidence gathered by police in Britain and by the FBI in America.
The tireless pressure exerted, and public activities undertaken by the victims' families, were instrumental in persuading Mr Cook to accept the compromise. Their representatives secured a promise from Mr Cook and Prime Minister Tony Blair, while in opposition, that once in power, Labour would take a fresh, more realistic and flexible approach in order to make a trial possible, even in a third country. Unlike the Conservative government, which was locked into a fix, the Labour government enlisted the help of every one they could think of in order to fulfil Mr Cook's pledge to the victims' families.
During the Commonwealth summit last year in Edinburgh, Mr Cook asked President Mandela to mediate. The South African president commands great respect in Libya, especially since publicly acknowledging Libya's support of the ANC during the long fight against apartheid. Mr Cook's plan was to call Colonel Gaddafi's bluff and accept the formula, rejected by the Conservative government for five years. With no effort he sold the plan to US Secretary of State Madeline Albright - who said in subsequent interviews that the Democrats' administration has been waiting for a change of heart in London.
When the legal aspects of the complex deal were worked out in November last year, Colonel Gaddafi balked at the deal. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan then orchestrated a discreet but relentless political campaign to persuade the Libyan leader to change his mind. Between November 1998 and March 1999 Mr Annan recruited dozens of leaders, including President Mubarak and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
Chad, Niger and Gambia, among other African nations, began flouting the UN sanctions by flying their leaders or senior officials into Tripoli airport. And last summer the 53 members of the Organisation for African Unity voted to stop abiding by the sanctions. Kofi Annan told the Americans and the British that if they didn't find a way forward, the economic sanctions would lose all legitimacy. As part of Mr Annan's effort, the US assured Libya the trial would not be used to undermine the rule of Colonel Gaddafi.
At the same time Mr Mandela enlisted the help of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. During an Arab summit in the UAE last December, the two men met with Kofi Annan, who flew straight from meeting Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. By March this year, Mr Mandela managed to convince Colonel Gaddafi - who told his people he would trust Mandela with the lives of his own children that the New Labour government in Britain means business.
Today both sides can claim that the eventual compromise - a trial under Scottish law, but before three judges, not a jury, on neutral ground - rewarded their stubbornness.
Like the magic in fairy tales, the Dutch government has transformed the former American base of Camp Zeist into a secluded piece of Scotland for the duration of the trial. The two suspects, have been 'extradited' to this mini-Scotland from the Netherlands and charged by a Scottish judge with murder and conspiracy to murder: the 259 people in the plane were all killed, as were 11 local people on the ground.
The bombing in 1988 followed threats of revenge, by Iran as well as Middle East terror groups, for the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by the American cruiser Vincennes in July 1988. A 1lb Semtex bomb inside a Toshiba cassette recorder was placed inside a brown Samsonite suitcase in the cargo hold of PanAm Flight 103 from Frankfurt and London to New York. It exploded 31,000 feet above south-west Scotland and most of the wreckage landed on Lockerbie.
A long investigation traced the owner of every piece of luggage on board Flight 103, except for the brown suitcase. Computer records held at Frankfurt airport indicated that the case had been put aboard the 747 without an accompanying passenger. It had been transferred from an Air Malta flight recently arrived from Luqa airport in Malta. Suspect Mr Fhimah was at the time security manager of the Luqa office of Libyan Arab Airways - a job normally filled by the Libyan Mukhabarat. Suspect Mr Al-Megrahi was the office's operations manager.
So will the trial reveal all?
"What is the point," a spokesman for the families of the 189 Americans who died in the crash asked, "trying the hitmen while the godfather walks free?" The victims' families suspect that even if the court finds the pair guilty, implying that the Libyan Mukhabarat ordered the attack, no one will seek to trace the one who gave the order, along the chain of command.
The suspension of UN sanctions - which might be lifted in mid-July following Mr Annan's report on Libya's denunciation of terrorism - was supposed to take into account both the Lockerbie bombing and the explosion of a French airliner in 1989.
A French court recently found Colonel Gaddafi's brother-in-law, plus five other absent suspects, guilty of the bombing and sentenced them to life imprisonment. However, Scottish law does not permit trial in absentia. France is now waiting to hear whether Mr Gaddafi will honour his earlier undertaking to abide by the verdict of the court, presumably by imprisoning the men in Libya and paying compensation to the families of the 270 victims.
Ordinary Libyans are unlikely to get much immediate relief from the suspension of sanctions. The sorry state of their economy owes more to low oil prices and economic mismanagement than to the past eight years of limited sanctions.
But there are still more political, diplomatic and economic battles to come as many disputes remain unsettled. These include an ongoing dispute with Britain, over the fatal shooting of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher by bullets allegedly fired from the Libyan Embassy in St. James's square in London during an anti-Gaddafi demonstration 1984, which lead to the severing of diplomatic relations.
The US debate over Libya's alleged chemical weapons programme continues. Meanwhile, Libya's case against both Britain and the US at the World Court at The Hague continues.
The Americans would find it almost impossible to persuade UN Security Council members to vote to re-impose the UN sanctions, but their own unilateral sanctions - imposed before the Lockerbie bombing - remain in place.
European companies lead by Italian and French firms, are queueing up to exploit Libya's reserves of oil and gas as well as opportunities in civil aviation, construction and public utilities. Many British firms like the Scottish engineering firm Weir Group, the civil engineers Brown & Root, and British Aerospace confirmed they were seeking business with the Libyan government and private firms, thus defying American threats against firms that invest more than $40 million.
So, future historians might ask, why did Colonel Gaddafi wait eight years to agree to the inevitable? Surely it was the most costly stance in his 30 year rule. But was it?
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|Title Annotation:||25th Anniversary Issue|
|Comment:||The UN has suspended sanctions it imposed on Libya in 1992 following the arrival of Libyans Abdel-Basset Al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah in the Netherlands on Apr 6, 1999.|
|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||May 1, 1999|
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