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Doubts About Evidence Arise As Lockerbie Trial Commences

By T. R. Reid
THE WASHINGTON POST -- LONDON

After interviewing thousands of witnesses and collecting 200,000 bits of evidence in one of the world’s largest criminal inquiries, investigators in the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing will finally bring their case against two alleged Libyan terrorists to court this week. But in the final months before the trial, unforeseen doubts have arisen about whether the detective work that led to the suspects will be strong enough to result in their conviction on charges of mass murder and conspiracy.

Prosecutors say they have the right men and the evidence to convict them, but observers who have followed the probe over the past decade warn that there are holes in the case. Information from several key witnesses that investigators counted on now appears to be problematic.

And families of some of the 270 victims have alleged that the two defendants were set up as political fall guys to distract attention from higher-ups who actually ordered the destruction of an American passenger jet, including, perhaps, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

“I think most Americans just assume that since these two Libyans were indicted, the prosecutors have a cast-iron case,” said Robert Black, a law professor at Edinburgh University who has worked with Libya, the United States and Britain on the case. “But some of the evidence is less clear-cut than it once appeared to be. Some of the witnesses are backtracking.”

Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, scattering debris over hundreds of miles. As investigators set out to solve the mystery of the blast, their probe grew to encompass hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, many smaller than a thumbnail.

The prosecution’s biggest hurdle, according to Black, is that the amazing detective story that led to the indictments might be too amazing for the three Scottish judges, who will be hearing the case without a jury.