German court convicts four in 1986 disco bombing

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Associated Press WriterBERLIN (AP) -- A German court convicted four defendants Tuesday in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque and blamed the Libyan secret service for planning the attack which killed two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman.

"The La Belle attack was one of the most perfidious and dangerous crimes in German history," Judge Peter Marhofer said in announcing the verdict.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the verdict as "positive news."

"It's a strong indication that however long it takes, whatever we have to do, we do and we will continue to bring terrorists to justice," he said.

The April 5, 1986, explosion at the crowded La Belle disco killed Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford, 21, and Nermin Hannay, a 29-year-old Turkish woman, immediately. Another U.S. soldier, 25-year-old Sgt. James E. Goins, died later of his injuries, and 229 people were wounded.

Though the court said the bombing was clearly planned by the Libyan secret service with help from the Libyan Embassy in then-communist East Berlin, Marhofer said prosecutors failed to prove the United States' claim that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi ordered the attacks.

Blaming Gadhafi, the United States launched retaliatory airstrikes on two Libyan cities 10 days after the blast. But it took 10 years to arrest the suspects and after years of often murky testimony, the four-year trial became a lesson in the difficulty of trying to prove terrorist connections.

The court said the four defendants plotted the attack, but only Verena Chanaa, a 42-year-old German who detonated the bomb, was found guilty of murder. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Yassir Chraidi, a 42-year-old Palestinian, was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder and accessory to murder, as were Musbah Abdulghasem Eter, a 44-year-old Libyan, and Ali Chanaa, a 42-year-old Lebanese-born German who is Verena Chanaa's ex-husband.

Chraidi was sentenced to 14 years; Eter and Ali Chanaa to 12 years each.

A fifth defendant, 36-year-old Andrea Haeusler, was acquitted for lack of evidence. Prosecutors had claimed she knew that her sister, Verena Chanaa, was carrying a bomb when she accompanied her to the disco.

After 15 years, the ruling brought closure for survivors and relatives of the victims, many of whom were among the 150 people who packed the courtroom for the long-awaited verdict, read under tight security. The defendants sat behind bulletproof glass, and sharpshooters kept watch from rooftops outside the courthouse.

While survivors welcomed the link to Libya, some were disappointed by the sentences. Prosecutors, who demanded life sentences, immediately appealed.

"It's a joke," said Richard George, a 42-year-old former U.S. soldier who was at the disco that night. Still, he said, "I'm glad it's over with. I can now say that La Belle is finished with, get it out of my life."

Goins' widow, Patrocinia, also expressed relief.

"I'm not happy with the amount of time that they got but I'm satisfied that they will be punished," she said. "I finally have closure."

Andreas Schulz, a lawyer for many of the American victims, said the finding of official Libyan involvement establishes a legal basis to sue Libya for compensation in a U.S. court.

Chief prosecutor Detlev Mehlis accused Gadhafi of ordering the bombing in revenge for a U.S.-Libyan naval clash in the Mediterranean and argued that proving Libyan "state terrorism" in court would reinforce the signal sent by the U.S. antiterror campaign that terrorists' sponsors also would be punished.

But Marhofer complained the attempt to finger Gadhafi was undermined by "the limited willingness" of the German and U.S. government intelligence services to provide corroborating evidence.

The La Belle trial was the first to attempt to directly implicate Gadhafi, once widely labeled a sponsor of international terror. In recent years, however, he has tried to present a more moderate image, and many observers say his days of radicalism appear to be behind him.

The investigation started moving only when East German secret service files became available after Germany reunited in 1990. The files led prosecutors to Eter, who in 1996 was persuaded to provide evidence for the government's case. He remained a defendant, however, because of what prosecutors cited as limited cooperation.

Among the evidence was an intercepted radio transmission from Tripoli to the Libyan Embassy in then-East Berlin calling for an attack "with as many victims as possible;" surveillance records on Eter and Chraidi as they prepared the bombing and reports on the embassy's activities by Ali Chanaa, who doubled as an East German informant.

Reacting to the verdict, the German government said that "a change in Libyan policy has been visible for some time." But it urged Libya to acknowledge responsibility for the La Belle attack and to compensate the victims.

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