Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi

Lockerbie bomber's appeal date set

October 15, 2001 Posted: 8:01 AM EDT (1201 GMT)

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands -- The appeal by convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset Al-Megrahi will begin on January 23, five judges have ruled.

At a preliminary hearing on Monday at a special Scottish court in the Netherlands, presiding judge Lord Cullen gave Megrahi's counsel four weeks to lodge the outlines of the arguments they will use at the appeal.

Prosecutors will then have four weeks to respond.

"The date of the hearing is January 23 of next year for the appeal itself," Lord Cullen was quoted by Reuters as saying.

It was Megrahi's first court appearance since he was jailed for life in January for the 1988 plane attack that killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The judge said it was highly likely another procedural hearing would be necessary before the appeal began, and any such hearing would be held on January 7.

"A decision as to whether there will be a further procedural hearing will be taken as soon as possible, and certainly by December 17," he told the court.

A total of 270 people died -- 259 passengers and crew and 11 residents on the ground -- when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the skies over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988.

At his original three trial, three judges recommended that Al-Megrahi, who the U.S. said was a Libyan intelligence agent, serve at least 20 years in jail. He is now in prison in Scotland.

His co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah was acquitted.

Top international lawyers have been advising Megrahi's defence on the appeal.

They include Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who was on the O.J. Simpson defence team, British human rights advocate Michael Mansfield and Frank Rubino, who represented General Manuel Noriega of Panama on charges of racketeering and money laundering against the U.S. government.

It is believed the defence will challenge evidence given at the original trial from Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who identified Al-Megrahi as a man who bought clothing from his store shortly before the bombing.

Remnants of that clothing were found scattered around Lockerbie after the atrocity and there was evidence that the clothes were packed around the bomb which blew up the aircraft.

Al-Megrahi was granted leave to appeal against his conviction earlier this year.

Some of the relatives of those killed, including Dr Jim Swire and the Rev. John Mosey, who both lost daughters, attended Monday's hearing.

Mosey told the Press Association: "We feel it's important that someone from the families is there to see that justice is done."

The hearing began with a petition by Marina de Larracoechea, whose sister Maria, 39, died in the crash.

De Larracoechea asked to be allowed to intervene in the proceedings. "There is evidence that was not presented in the trial that I think was missed," she said.

The five-judge bench, after retiring briefly to consider the petition, rejected it, agreeing with the prosecution that there was no procedure in Scottish law allowing the victims' families to participate.

Chief defence lawyer William Taylor told the court his team would review any new material provided.

The appeal comes at a time when the world is again tackling the problem of capturing terrorists and bringing them to justice in response to the September 11 attacks in the United States.