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A unique trial for Pan Am bomb suspects

Two Libyans are being tried in the Netherlands, in a showcase of

Scotland's legal system, which traces its history back 1,000 years and is peppered with arcane terms and a unique "not proven" verdict, is coming under the international spotlight.

One of the world's oldest legal systems is being imported to the Netherlands for the trial of two Libyans suspected in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The blast killed 270 people.

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Robert Black, a professor of law at Edinburgh University, says: "The trial of the suspects will be a showcase for Scottish justice. It will also be a legal proceeding unique in the annals of this nation's law."

Three Scottish judges, as yet unnamed, will preside over the trial, which is taking place at Camp Zeist, a former US air base near Amsterdam. Technically the camp is Scottish soil for the duration of the proceedings, expected to take up to two years.

Professor Black devised the plan to set up a Scottish court in the Netherlands, thus persuading Libyan ruler Col. Muammar Qaddafi to hand over the two accused for trial April 5, after lengthy negotiations.

Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel al-Megrahi were committed for trial yesterday before a judge, known as a sheriff in Scottish parlance. They entered no plea.

The trial is now due to begin within 110 days, although defense lawyers may ask for a delay for more time to prepare their case.

The suspected former Libyan intelligence agents are charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and violating international air security laws. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

There are no opening speeches by prosecuting and defending counsel in a Scottish court, known as a diet. The indictment is read, a plea is entered, and then the prosecution presents its case, calling witnesses.

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The burden of proof will be on Lord Hardie, Scotland's equivalent of an attorney general, who will lead the prosecution team.

In a switch from most cases tried under Scottish law, there will be no jury. Colonel Qaddafi insisted that a Scottish panel could not be trusted to give a balanced verdict.

Lord Hardie is reportedly unhappy with this, calling it a fundamental departure from a traditional safeguard of the Scottish system. Legal experts say the lack of a jury could also make it more difficult to win a conviction.

Scottish law is unique in one other respect: As well as delivering a guilty or not guilty verdict, a court can find a case "not proven." That means the accused is acquitted, but such a verdict tends to leave a cloud of suspicion hovering over anyone who escapes sentence in this way.

Black says it could be weeks before the trial goes ahead but promises it will be scrupulously fair. "The trial will not be screened live on television, although recorded excerpts may be shown later. There will be no media circus as with the trials of O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward [the British au pair convicted in Massachusetts in the death of a child in her care]."

Over the past decade, police have made inquiries in 70 countries and taken 15,000 statements in the case. Some 18,000 items of property were recovered from the crash site, and 35,000 photographs were taken.

One potentially important class of evidence will not be available: Flight 103 took off from Frankfurt, where the bomb is alleged to have been planted aboard the Pan Am plane. Under the rules of the trial, the prosecution will not be able to compel German airport workers to attend. Their testimony may be provided by videolink.

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