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A long and winding road to justice; Families of victims in Lockerbie crash waited years for trial


CAMP ZEIST, the Netherlands -- For more than a decade, Jim Swire chased the truth and fought for a trial.

He badgered British prime ministers, met three times with Libyan leader Muammar el Kadafi and transformed himself from a grieving country doctor to Britain's public face and nagging conscience of Lockerbie, of the bomb attack over that Scottish town Dec. 21, 1988, that brought down Pan Am Flight 103.

Today, the journey for justice by Swire and many other families of victims reaches a turning point as the trial opens for two men charged in the attack that killed 270 people, including Swire's 23-year-old daughter, Flora.

Those anticipating high drama in a trial of alleged international terrorism and mass murder may be in for a disappointment. There will be no theatrical opening statements.

"We're looking for truth and justice," Swire said.

The trial of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima is billed as a landmark in international justice.

It will take place in a Scottish court constructed outside Utrecht on a former Dutch airbase once used by the U.S. military.

A panel of three Scottish judges will hear the nonjury trial. The two Libyans face charges of conspiracy to murder, murder and contravention of the Aviation Security Act of 1982.

The trial could require more than 1,200 witnesses and last more than a year, providing a wrenching experience for victims' families who have struggled for years to come to grips with the horrific deaths of their loved ones.

"A Scottish trial tends to be a low-key affair," said John Grant, an international law professor at Glasgow University. "We won't get the theatrics of an O.J. Simpson case."

A few dozen of the victims' families traveled here for today's opening. Others in America will be able to view the trial via televised hook-up at sites in New York and Washington.

And then there's Swire, a 64-year-old with piercing eyes and a shock of white hair, who said he has sought to "create something worthwhile out of something so monstrous."

He plans to stick around for the duration, renting a house, preparing to watch daily proceedings from behind bulletproof glass that separates the courtroom and public gallery.

He wants to know the truth about the death of his daughter, Flora.

"All we can make sure is the fact of her murder is not swept under some dirty politician's carpet," he said.

The Sunday Herald of Glasgow has written that without Swire's "unwavering determination, a trial might not now be in prospect at all." Others, including prominent victim families from America, say that Swire's meetings with Kadafi provided "cover" for the Libyan regime and they criticized him for "absolving" Kadafi of responsibility.

Swire's tireless campaign was matched by many U.S. families, who traveled to Washington and European capitals to lobby for the trial. After Libya refused to turn the suspects over to either Britain or America, a compromise allowed it to take place in a neutral country with Scottish judges.

George Williams, of Joppatowne, Md., head of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, said pressure by the families ensured the trial would take place.

"They would have forgotten us long, long ago," said Williams, who lost a son on the flight. "This would have been kicked under the rug, without the families."

For those who have followed the case with an attention to detail, the deaths of 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground have been shrouded in a veil of mystery that only deepens the pain of their loss.

Who ordered the attack? Who carried out the plan? And above all, why was that plane targeted?

"It's like an Agatha Christie novel," Swire said.

At his rambling Victorian farmhouse at the end of a lane in Finstall, outside Birmingham, Swire reflected last week on Lockerbie and its aftermath. On the lapel of his jacket he wore a button: "Pan Am 103, The Truth Must Be Known." His dog Ellie sat at his feet, as accustomed as her master to the media's presence.

Memories of Swire's eldest daughter were everywhere, from the portrait over the bed he shares with his wife, Jane, to the 4,400 trees the parents planted and named Flora's Wood.

He recalled his daughter, bound for America on the day before her 24th birthday, so she could be with her boyfriend in Boston. She was following her father's path in medicine.

She had been accepted to Swire's alma mater, Cambridge University, for post-graduate medical study, an honor the father now thinks she was waiting to divulge to the family in a Christmas Day telephone call.

Instead came the terrible news, followed by televised images of fiery wreckage in the Scottish night and the realization that his daughter was among Lockerbie's dead.

Shock eventually gave way to anger and then to action.

This is a man who earned a police caution in 1990 when he smuggled a mock bomb aboard a plane to demonstrate deficiencies in airline safety. Swire said that before his 1991 visit to Kadafi, he worried he wouldn't come back alive. During the meeting, he exchanged gifts and discussed the death of Kadafi's stepdaughter, who was killed during a 1986 U.S. air raid on Tripoli.

The tensest moment, though, came at the end, as Swire leaned forward to pin a Pan Am 103 badge on Kadafi, a move that alarmed the Libyan leader's contingent of female security guards, who unlatched the safety locks on their weapons.

What does Swire make of Kadafi?

"I find Kadafi unfathomable and difficult to understand," he said.

Unlike many of the American families, who believe the plane was brought down on orders from Kadafi, Swire said he suspects it might have been an "Iranian-inspired operation," in revenge for the July 1988 downing in the Persian Gulf of an Iranian Airbus with 290 people aboard by the American warship USS Vincennes -- an action the United States blamed on a radar mistake. He also said Syria may have had a lesser role in the plot.

"Motive is a good thing to look at when you're deciding to solve a murder mystery," he said.

Others disagree with his conclusion.

"That flies in the face of all the evidence gathered in one of the most intense investigations in history," Williams said. "I respect Jim. I just believe he has been hoodwinked."

For his part, Swire said he is entering the trial with the idea that the accused are presumed innocent.

But asked what it would be like to sit in the gallery and look at the accused, Swire said simply, "Those men may have killed my daughter."

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