London (CNSNews.com) - A Paris court ruled Friday that Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi could stand trial in France for the bombing of a French airliner over West Africa in 1989.
France's leading anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who first uncovered a Libyan link to the outrage in the early 1990s, will now decide whether to issue an international arrest warrant for Gadaffi.
Seven Americans, including the wife of the American ambassador to Chad, Bonnie Pugh, were among the 170 mostly European and African passenger on board the UTA DC-10. All died when it exploded over Niger while on a flight from Congo to France, via Chad.
The appeal court rejected arguments from the prosecutor's office that as a ruling head of state Gadaffi enjoyed immunity from prosecution, and ruled in favor of a suit brought by families of victims wanting him to face trial for "complicity to murder."
Last year six Libyan state officials - including Gadaffi's brother-in-law Abdallah Senoussi, allegedly the head of Libyan intelligence - were convicted in their absence to life imprisonment for carrying out the bombing of Flight 772. France has issued international arrest warrants for the six, which will remain in force for 20 years.
On the orders of a French court, Libya has since paid out around $31 million in compensation to the families of the victims.
But the victims believe justice will only be served when the six are jailed, and when Gadaffi himself stands trial.
Francoise Rudetzki, the founder of SOS-Attentats, an organization representing victims of terrorism and their families, hailed Friday's decision as a major victory.
"We are very proud and very happy," she said by telephone from Paris. "We are happy on behalf of victims of terrorism everywhere."
Rudetzki said the organization had been "fighting alone" for 11 years, frustrated by an apparent lack of enthusiasm on the parts of the French government - as well as other Western governments whose nationals died.
As the nationals of 17 countries were on the UTA flight, "the international community should be involved in the case. But we have been alone until now. Maybe now we will have respect [and action] from the international community."
Rudetzki said it remained puzzling why the U.S. and Britain had taken such a hands-off approach to the UTA bombing, compared to their campaign to have Gadaffi hand over two Libyans suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing a year earlier.
Noting that seven Americans and three Brits were among the dead, she said: "Surely life is as valuable if you die on an American flight or on a French flight."
She had taken up the matter with a State Department official during a visit to Washington last year, she said, and was told the U.S. and Britain had agreed with France that they would pursue the Lockerbie case while Paris focused on the UTA bombing.
U.N. sanctions were imposed against Tripoli in 1992 because of suspected links to both the UTA attack and the bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland, which cost 270 lives.
The sanctions were suspended last year - prematurely in Rudetzki's view - after Gadaffi surrendered two suspects to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing. That case is continuing at a special court in the Netherlands.
But Gadaffi has declined to extradite the six Libyans convicted of the UTA bombing. It is for this reason SOS-Attentats called for him to be prosecuted as an accomplice.
In the case against the six, it was found that one of them, a Libyan diplomat in Brazzaville, Congo, had recruited three Congolese men to plant a bomb on the flight and had given them the device.
A State Department spokesman Friday said that, according to the original U.N. Security Council resolutions, Libya was expected to cooperate fully with both the Lockerbie and UTA bombing investigations before sanctions would be finally lifted.
The current suspension of the sanctions, he said by telephone from Washington, was intended as "a reward for good behavior" - a nod to Gadaffi that by handing over the Lockerbie suspects he was "going in the right direction."
"If the Libyans cease to live up to their obligations, cease to progress towards fulfilling all of them ? we will not retreat on our red lines regarding what the Libyans are required to do," the spokesman said.
A British Foreign Office spokesman concurred Friday that the UK would not act unilaterally to end sanctions against Libya, but that it would be a Security Council decision.
He rejected any perception that Britain was less concerned about the UTA bombing than Lockerbie, and said the UK government remained in close touch with the French authorities with regard to the case.
Rudetzki of SOS-Attentats said Friday's ruling was highly significant, sending a message to those involved in terror that "wherever they are, whenever they have committed an act of terrorism, they should know they can't get away."
She expressed the hope that this was the first step toward having terrorism included in the categories of crime which could be tried in a proposed international criminal court.
The ruling comes at a time Gadaffi has been polishing his image in the hopes of a diplomatic comeback. He was recently involved in mediation to secure the release of foreign hostages held by Islamists in the Philippines.
By way of reward, according to French press reports, he sought an invitation to an important Euro-Mediterranean summit to be held in Marseilles later this year.
But Rudetzki said her group expected that fears of arrest may now keep him away from France.
"Maybe Libya will be his first jail."
Rudetzki founded SOS-Attentats after she was badly hurt in a 1983 bombing of a Parisian restaurant. No-one was ever held accountable. At the time, she said, the French government was dealing with terrorist groups, afraid for political reasons to take action against them.
"That was the sense of my fight. There was complete immunity for those who committed acts of terrorism.
"It is part of a victim's compensation to have a trial," she said of her motivation for what has become a full-time job. "The only way for a democracy to fight against terrorism is justice. We have to use that way."
SOS-Attentats today represents some 1,600 victims of terrorism, including 250 family members of victims of the UTA bombing.