14 August 2000
What on earth is going on at the Lockerbie trial? Regular readers will remember from our last visit to the Scottish Court in The Netherlands that prosecuting lawyers were having difficulties in producing enough witnesses to keep the case going. Things don't seem to have got much better; on Friday 21 July, for example, the court packed up for the weekend at 12.15pm after the Advocate Depute, Alan Turnbull QC, confessed that the evidence had "proceeded a little more efficiently" than he had "anticipated".
During the following week, the court sat for just one full day and then for an hour or so a couple of days later before adjourning for the three-week summer break. But the lawyers weren't wasting their time; indeed, they were looking for ways of saving it. The court was told that both sides had been willing to look "realistically" at the evidence and agree on it wherever possible. This had meant a dramatic reduction in the number of witnesses called to give evidence in person - there had originally been more than 1,100. More than 60 relatives and friends of those who died in the Lockerbie bombing were told at the end of July that they would no longer be needed. This was important: they had not been allowed to watch the trial while there was a possibility that they would be called to identify pieces of baggage found among the wreckage.
The prosecution also took the opportunity to give the court correct names and addresses of four of the victims. The parents of Theodora Cohen, who was 20 when she died on Pan Am 103, had been less than happy when their daughter's details were incorrectly given to the court during an hour-long requiem at the start of the trial.
Among the evidence now agreed is that on 30 September 1987, a pasta opener and a pasta cutter were shipped by the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front from Damascus in Syria to Abd El Salam Arif Abu Nada, director of a bakery in Malta. Readers wanting to know the significance of this evidence should read Day 40 of the court's transcript. Unfortunately, this excellent verbatim record is not publicly available: the Scottish Court Service sells it to media organisations for £30 per day. No doubt officials have to find some way of recouping the vast cost of setting up the media facilities, virtually unused since the opening days of the trial. There are many reasons for this lack of media attention: the cost of travelling to The Netherlands when there is no guarantee which witnesses will be called; the difficulty of following fragmented or repetitive evidence; and the restrictions on broadcasters. It is therefore a pity that the daily transcript is not posted on the internet once it is approved.
Bill Taylor QC, defence counsel for the first of the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing, told the judges last month that the estimated duration of their trial had been reduced from one year to just a third of that period. Clearly he did not mean four months from start to finish - the trial started at the beginning of May and the prosecution will not have finished putting its case until September. But the court has now sat for 40 working days which, ignoring breaks, could be viewed as two months of hearings - it seems we may be halfway to a verdict. Who says lawyers like dragging out their cases?
Joshua Rozenberg is the BBC's legal affairs correspondent. He can be contacted at email@example.com.