Sunday, 12 January 2020

"All the evidence points to Iran, including the words of its own president"

[The following is excerpted from an article by Marcello Mega headlined Bereaved father: Rouhani tweet is Lockerbie admission in today's edition of The Sunday Times:]

More than 31 years after his daughter was murdered in the Lockerbie bombing, Dr Jim Swire has condemned Police Scotland and the Crown Office for refusing to investigate a “confession” tweeted by Iran’s president.

Hassan Rouhani used his Twitter account last week to warn the West: “Never threaten the Iranian nation.”

He also referred to the 290 people killed on an Iran Air flight on July 3, 1988, less than six months before the Lockerbie bombing, when IR655 was shot down over the Gulf by a US warship, USS Vincennes.

At the time, Iran warned that the skies would run with the blood of Americans.

Investigators were building a case against Iran for most of the first year of the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing, which claimed the lives of 270 people. But changes in the region’s geopolitical relations with the West coincided with a shift in focus to Libya, and the late Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan agent, remains the only person convicted of the bombing.

Swire and some other relatives of the Lockerbie victims have never accepted Libya’s guilt, and Megrahi’s own family currently has a Scottish lawyer pursuing a posthumous appeal through the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.

After the US air strike that killed Iranian military commander General Qasem Soleimani earlier this month, Donald Trump stoked tensions by referring to 52 further potential targets in Iran. Rouhani responded: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290.”

Swire said last night: “It’s been 31 years. There has been claim and counterclaim, but never before has anyone come this close to confessing responsibility.

“Of course, those who want to maintain the farce that Libya was responsible will suggest other explanations, but there are none.

“The president of Iran is saying that they avenged the deaths of the 290 killed on IR655. There is no other incident, no act of aggression by Iran, that could explain that claim, only Lockerbie.”

Police Scotland and the Crown Office maintained that all ongoing investigations were still directed at Libya, provoking Swire’s anger.

Swire said: “I am now 83 and my chances of seeing justice done for Flora and the 269 others who died diminish with every year that passes.

“I used to believe in Scottish justice. I promised Megrahi and Libya that he would have a fair trial under Scots law and I regret that very much because he was convicted on no basis in fact.

“It was a show trial, and they are now continuing the farce by concentrating on Libya when all the evidence points to Iran, including the words of its own president.”

He was also highly critical of the outcome of Operation Sandwood in which a high-level team of Police Scotland investigators spent years probing allegations made by pressure group Justice for Megrahi that prosecutors, police officers and crown experts had committed criminal acts during Megrahi’s trial.

To ensure independence from the crown, police took direction from an independent advocate — who has never been identified — and concluded in 2018 that there had been no criminality.

A Crown Office spokesman said: “This is a live inquiry and Scottish prosecutors have a number of strands of investigation which are producing intelligence and information supportive of the original trial court’s finding.” (...)

Rouhani did not reply to a tweet asking whether his tweet was a confession to the Lockerbie bombing. Nor did the Iranian embassy in London respond.

[RB: An editorial in today's edition of The Sun contains the following:]

Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of the 270 people who perished, believes Iran has come close to confessing to the bombing in a cryptic tweet.

We don’t know if Dr Swire is correct or not in his claims.

But it’s vital the ongoing inquiry into the bombing gives all leads proper consideration.

Dr Swire — and the other relatives — deserve no less.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Innocence of Megrahi and Libya does not point to guilt of Iran

[What follows is excerpted from an article by Dr Ludwig de Braeckeleer published today on his Intel Today website, where full supporting citations can be found:]

On January 6 2020, President Hassan Rouhani tweeted the following message:

“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655. Never threaten the Iranian nation.”

This tweet was a response to President Donald Trump’s threat to target 52 sites in Iran should it retaliate against the US drone strike that killed top Iranian military figure General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 2020.

Not surprisingly, Rouhani’s message was quickly commented on by Middle East and Lockerbie experts as well as by imbeciles and hypocrites.

Real experts —

Middle East analyst Fatima Alasrar, from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was one of the first to indicate the link between Rouhani’s tweet and Lockerbie.

“Rouhani is basically reminding @realDonaldTrump of the #Iranian Air Flight 655 carrying 290 passengers which was downed by a US navy warship the Vincennes in 1988.

Though it was deemed a human error, Tehran worked covertly to exact its revenge.

How? Lockerbie.”

Robert Black — Professor Emeritus of Scots Law in the University of Edinburgh and best known as the architect of the Lockerbie Trial– concurs.

Speaking to The National as Iran continued to mourn Soleimani, Black said:

“I think Rouhani’s tweet does refer to Pan Am 103 … The 290 clearly refers to those killed on Iran Air 655 and with ‘Never threaten the Iranian nation’ it seems to me that he’s saying that Iran responded to those Iranian deaths caused by US action.

The only response that I can think of was the bombing of Pan Am 103 six months later.”

Imbeciles and hypocrites —

Given half a chance, idiots will never miss the opportunity to share with you their “deep knowledge” on sensitive issues. The current Iran Crisis is a case in point.

Describing himself as an expert on terrorism strategy with 36 years of services in the US Intel Community, Malcolm Nance tweeted:

“PANAM 103 was DEFINATELY Qaddafi Libya. We found the same Swiss digital detonators were purchased by Libyan intelligence and were also used on the UTA 772 in flight bombing. No question. Iran had nothing to do with it.”

Here is a quick primer for this “expert”. Firstly, no detonators were recovered, let alone identified, among the debris of PA 103 and UTA 772.

Secondly, the timer that allegedly triggered the bomb on UTA 772 was produced in Taiwan, not Switzerland.

Thirdly, we know now that PT/35(b) — a fragment of an PCB allegedly found at Lockerbie — does NOT match the metallurgy of the Swiss timers — MST13 — delivered to Libya. Full stop. (...)

Intel Today analysis —

There is no doubt whatsoever that Rouhani makes a direct reference to the 290 victims of Iranian Air Flight 655.

His warning “Never threaten the Iranian nation” appears to be a veiled threat suggesting that Iran will retaliate for Soleimani’s assassination just like they did in the case of Iranian Air Flight 655.

Assuming that this is indeed what Rouhani means, then it seems logical to conclude that he is claiming Iran’s responsibility for the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

Actually, it is not the first time that a high level Iranian cleric claims responsibility for Lockerbie.

Indeed, when I spoke to Bani Sadr — who served as the first president of the Republic of Iran — he told me that ayatollah Motashemi-pur had immediately taken credit for the Lockerbie bombing which he regarded as a “just revenge” for Flight 655.


Let me say this one more time. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Lockerbie verdict is utter nonsense.

Megrahi — the man known as the Lockerbie bomber — clearly suffered a spectacular miscarriage of justice.

In fact, the analysis of the fragment that linked Libya to Lockerbie demonstrates that the Swiss timers delivered to Libya played no role in the tragedy.

This is, in my opinion, the only reasonable conclusion that an honest person can reach.

However, to many observers, the innocence of Megrahi — and Libya — can only point to the guilt of Iran.

I can not agree with such a flawed logic, for it may very well replace a 30 years old lie by a new one, which would be quite convenient to certain groups today as it would suit very well their geopolitical agenda. (...)

Let me make this point very clear. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran ordered the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie as an act of retaliation for Iran Air 655.

And there is a good reason for that which I will reveal today.

In the aftermath of Flight 655 disaster, the US and Iran conducted a series of secret talks in the city of Montreux, Switzerland.  Richard Lawless was representing Bush and Abolghasem Mesbahi was an envoy of Rafsanjani.

By the end of September 1988 — 3 months before Lockerbie — they managed to settle an agreement.

None of this has ever been made public for obvious reasons. It would have been perceived as a second IranGate scandal. (...)

So, what really happened?

The Lockerbie investigation underwent three separated stages. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the American and British investigators quickly identified the cause of the tragedy as well as those responsible for it.

However, both Bush and Thatcher agreed that the truth was inconvenient.

From early January 1989 to March 1989, US and UK Intelligence agencies were busy writing a script implicating Iran.

That was not a very difficult task considering that very realistic but false “means, motive, and opportunity” could easily be wowen into a rather believable story.

Basically, the events of the “Autumn Leaves” operation — the PFLP-GC cell operating in Frankfurt — became a blueprint for the script. Thus all the key items appear at this stage: brown Samsonite, clothes from Malta, Toshiba radio, Semtex, Frankfurt, etc…

But in March 1989,  George H W Bush and Margaret Thatcher decided to hold off this game plan.

Why? Remember that the US is in secret talks with Rafsanjani and the future seems promising.

Ayatollah Khomeini is dying and his hardliner heir — Grand Ayatollah Montazeri — has been sacked on March 26 1989.

Khomeini died on June 3rd 1989. Ali Khamenei was elevated from the position of hojatoleslām to the rank of Ayatollah.That title, and a modification of the Constitution which previously restricted the job to the few people such Montazeri who had the title of Grand Ayatollah, was then enough to promote him as Khomeini’s successor.

Next, Rafsanjani himself was elected Iran’s president on August 3rd 1989.

By September 1989, blaming Iran for Lockerbie would no longer have served the geopolitical interests of the US and UK.

And lo and behold, in September 1989, the investigation entered stage 3 and  switched away from Iran to solely focus on Libya thanks to the mysterious ‘discovery’ of a tiny circuit board known as PT/35(b). The rest is History. (...)

If the SCCRC recommend a new trial, the infamous Zeist verdict does not have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving.

This should be the very top priority. Once Megrahi is acquitted and the Lockerbie-Libya fiction is erased once and for all, then the time will be right to investigate the true cause of disaster and reveal the identity of the culprits. It is not very hard at all…

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Rouhani's tweet indicates Iran was to blame for Lockerbie

[This is the headline over a report by Greg Russell in today's edition of The National. It reads as follows:]

A leading figure in the Lockerbie trial has said he believes that a social media post from the Iranian president refers to the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 and Iran’s responsibility for it.

Hassan Rouhani posted a tweet in response to President Donald Trump’s threat to target 52 sites in Iran should it retaliate against the US drone strike that killed top Iranian military figure General Qassem Soleimani on Friday.

Rouhani tweeted: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655. Never threaten the Iranian nation.”

The number 290 is a reference to the number of passengers on board Iranian Airways flight IR655 who died when the US Navy accidentally shot down their plane over the Persian Gulf in summer 1988.

Five months later, 270 people died when Pan Am flight 103 crashed in Lockerbie after a bomb exploded on board.

Blame for the attack fell on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Libya, although Western intelligence agencies believed Iran had ordered the bombing in retaliation for America’s downing of its plane in July.

Speaking to The National as Iran continued to mourn Soleimani, Robert Black QC, Professor Emeritus of Scots Law in the University of Edinburgh, said: “I think Rouhani’s tweet does refer to Pan Am 103 … The 290 clearly refers to those killed on Iran Air 655 and with ‘Never threaten the Iranian nation’ it seems to me that he’s saying that Iran responded to those Iranian deaths caused by US action.

“The only response that I can think of was the bombing of Pan Am 103 six months later.”

Middle East analyst Fatima Alasrar, from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, also indicated the link between Rouhani’s tweet and Lockerbie.

She wrote: “Rouhani is basically reminding @realDonaldTrump of the #Iranian Air Flight 655 carrying 290 passengers which was downed by a US navy warship the Vincennes in 1988.

“Though it was deemed a human error, Tehran worked covertly to exact its revenge.

“How? #Lockerbie.

“Boeing 747 airline Pan Am exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and was assumed to be an operation conducted by the Libyans when it was #Iran who orchestrated the downing of the plane and paid the Libyans to do it.

“After years of denying, Rouhani just admitted to it!”

Black was born and raised in Lockerbie and has published many articles on the atrocity.

He is often referred to as the architect of the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

The QC said other analysts shared Alasrar’s view: “Quite a lot of area experts in addition to Fatima Alasrar are interpreting the tweet as an implied admission (or boast) of responsibility for Lockerbie, for example Kyle Orton [who wrote] ‘The accidental shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 convinced Khomeini to accept the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. It has long been suspected that the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie five months later was Iran’s revenge. Rouhani seems to be taking responsibility’.”

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Has President Rouhani acknowledged Iran's responsibility for Lockerbie?

[What follows is excerpted from a report in today's edition of the Daily Express:]

Donald Trump has been warned to expect another Lockerbie by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as Iran continued to mourn the death of its top military leader Qassem Soleimani.

Mr Rouhani responded to the US President’s threat to strike 52 Iranian sites, by posting a cryptic tweet in which he told America to never threaten Iran and to “remember the number 290”. He wrote: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290.#IR655. Never threaten the Iranian nation.”

The figure 290 refers to the total number of passengers on Iranian Airways flight IR655 who died when their plane was accidentally shot down over the Persian Gulf by the US Navy in July 1988.

In December of the same year, Pan Am flight 103 crashed in Lockerbie after a bomb exploded on board, killing all 270 passengers.

Although Colonel Gaddafi and Libya were blamed for the terrorist attack, Western intelligence agencies believed that Iran ordered the bombing in retaliation for the downing of its plane in July.

Mr Rouhani’s post has been interpreted by some Middle East experts as a veiled reference to the Lockerbie tragedy and an implicit acknowledgement of their involvement in the affair.

Fatima Alasrar, a Middle East analyst from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, linked Rouhani's tweet with the Lockerbie disaster.

She wrote: “Rouhani is basically reminding @realDonaldTrump of the #Iranian Air Flight 655 carrying 290 passengers which was downed by a US navy warship the Vincennes in 1988.

“Though it was deemed a human error, Tehran worked covertly to exact its revenge. How? #Lockerbie.”

She added: 'Boeing 747 airline Pan Am exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and was assumed to be an operation conducted by the Libyans when it was #Iran who orchestrated the downing of the plane and paid the Libyans to do it.

“After years of denying, Rouhani just admitted to it!”

[RB: A longer article along the same lines appears today in the Daily Mail. In February 2016 barrister David Wolchover wrote an article setting out the evidence for Iran and Rouhani's responsibility for Lockerbie.]

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Libya got the blame, but many in US and UK intelligence believe Iran gave the instructions

[What follows is excerpted from a long article by John Simpson in today's edition of The Mail on Sunday:]

Following the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in the early hours of Friday morning – personally ordered by President Trump from his Florida holiday home, Mar-a-Lago – retribution is now a major priority for Iran’s leaders and their forces. And, as my Iranian friend implied, they have plenty of options. There are only two requirements: whatever action they take should satisfy Iran’s instinctive desire for vengeance, yet it should not be so blatant that it provokes the United States into an all-out war. (...)

There is a huge variety of alternative strategies. Iran has often staged cyber-attacks against Western targets, with some success; but although cutting American power supplies or the flow of information might be briefly satisfying to Iran’s leaders, it won’t have the element of personal revenge they want. As in the past, Iran can use proxy groups to attack international shipping in the Gulf. But Western intelligence and tactics have improved recently, and this may not be as effective as in the past. (...)

An eye for an eye has always been the approach of the clerics who control the government of the Islamic Republic. (...)

On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a new guided missile cruiser, was on patrol in the Gulf at a time of greatly heightened tension between Iran and the US. It found itself involved in a shoot-out with a group of apparently hostile Iranian gunboats. While the firing was still going on, an Airbus A300 of Iran Air took off from Bandar Abbas, a civil as well as military airport on the Gulf coast of Iran, and flew south towards the Vincennes.

As a result of a catastrophic technical mistake, the defensive systems on the Vincennes identified the Airbus as a military jet coming in to attack. Vincennes fired two radar-guided missiles at it, bringing it down with the loss of all 290 people on board.

By chance, a television team was filming on the bridge of the Vincennes that morning. The cameraman captured the delight of the crew when they thought they had shot down a hostile fighter, and the change to horror when it became clear what had really happened.

William Rogers, the captain of USS Vincennes who gave the order to fire the missiles, was cleared by a board of inquiry, but Iran believes to this day that the destruction of the Airbus was deliberate, and its leaders announced that they would avenge it.

Almost six months later, on December 21, a small group of Libyan terrorists associated with Iran’s close ally Syria planted a bomb on an American PanAm airliner. It blew up over Lockerbie, killing 270 people altogether. 

Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya got the blame, but many people in the American and British intelligence community believe that Iran gave the original instructions for the attack, to avenge the shooting down of the Airbus. (...) 
[RB: While many believe that Iran commissioned the destruction of Pan Am 103, no-one that I'm aware of has ever suggested that Abdelbaset Megrahi or Lamin Fhimah were members of "a small group of Libyan terrorists associated with Iran's close ally Syria" nor is there any evidence that such a group existed. If Iran was the instigator, the evidence points to the actual perpetrators being Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC and there is no evidence of any Libyan link to that group.]

Iran’s religious leaders believe their authority and the reputation of Iran now depend on getting specific retribution for President Trump’s ordering of the assassination of General Soleimani and his companions.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Iran's "cold, calculated revenge"

[What follows is a brief excerpt from an article by Martin Jay published today in Middle East Online about the American assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani yesterday in Baghdad:]

In the morning of 3rd of January millions of people in the West woke up to the news that an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani had been assassinated by an American strike in Baghdad. But very few of them, if any, will understand just how colossal a move the decision by Trump is and what the payback will be.

By far, this strike is way bigger than anything Trump has done so far in the region (...)

In fact, one could argue that even America’s downing of an Iranian airliner in July 1988 in the straits of Hormuz – a military blunder by a commander of an aircraft carrier who believed that an Iranian airliner was a fighter jet descending – also cannot even compare. Given that the decision to shoot down the civilian airliner was a genuine military misjudgement it is worth noting what Iran’s response was: cold, calculated revenge against an American airliner, Pan Am flight 103 just six months later three days before Christmas, packed full of Americans, including military.

Iran’s revenge will be equally calculated, but much more than merely Lockerbie. It’s hard not to underestimate how powerful and how respected Soleimani was to the Iranians – and how feared by his enemies. (...)

Trump’s decision to give the assassination the green light – in preference for a military strike against pro-Iranian Iraqi units which were apparently planning attacks against US forces there – has taken the threat of a war to a higher level and should be seen more rationally as yet another chapter in the war with Iran, since 1979. But an important one. The war has now shifted from proxy to direct which indicate that despite all the reports to the contrary, Trump is indeed ready for a real hands-on war in the region with Iran.

[RB: It is interesting and instructive that the author of this article -- a very experienced commentator on the middle-eastern scene -- regards the destruction of Pan Am 103 as unquestionably an act of revenge by Iran for the downing of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes. This was also the view of the US Central Intelligence Agency, as noted in this paragraph from a report posted on 3 January 2020 on the website of The Guardian:]

US intelligence certainly believes Hezbollah was behind the bombing of an Israeli-Argentinian cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, and the bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012. The CIA was also convinced that Iran was involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, in reprisal for the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner, Iran Air 655, five months earlier.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Let this be the year when the Scottish criminal justice system gives clarity on Lockerbie

[This is the headline over a letter from Dr Jim Swire published today on the website of The Herald. It reads as follows:]

As we enter a new decade, inevitably we carry with us uncompleted business from the past.

More than three decades ago an aircraft loaded with a terrorist bomb at Heathrow Airport exploded and fell upon the innocent town of Lockerbie. Ever since then some of us UK relatives of those who died aboard that aircraft have diligently sought the truth.

Our requests for an inquiry to successive Prime Ministers have always been rebuffed. Thus we have no explanation as to why a device about which Lady Thatcher’s Government had been warned in detail and in good time by the West Germans was allowed to be loaded onto the aircraft.

Following the heroic recovering of the bodies, and the deeply moving support of so many in that little town, in the face of the loss of its own 11 victims we felt the healing effect of their love.

It seemed that the fingertip searching of the disaster fields was a lesson in how a murder investigation should be conducted. However, by the time the police inquiry had culminated in the trial and a guilty verdict at Zeist in 2001 it became impossible for many to believe that the truth had been revealed.

Certainly even for us laymen there appeared to be multiple and very serious defects in much of the evidence, even down to what might or might not have been recovered from the crash site.

Over the intervening decades there have been many delays, culminating in the withdrawal of an appeal by the convicted Libyan, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, associated with his precipitous, but for some of us hugely welcome, release to die at home from his prostate cancer among his own family. This appeal ceased just before much new and apparently irrefutable evidence of the convicted man’s innocence could be heard.

Some of us relatives of the dead then applied to the High Court for a review of the entire case through a further appeal. This we were refused amongst allegations that we should be regarded as "a mischief".

We then flew to meet with members of Megrahi’s family and found them determined to apply under solicitor Aamer Anwar for a further appeal themselves, convinced, as they too are, of his total innocence.

Now it may be that 2020 will be the year of clear vision over this dreadful and fully avoidable tragedy.

Our independent Scottish criminal justice system has had from 1991 when the indictments against two Libyans were first issued to decide the issue of whether the two accused Libyans did destroy the PanAm 103 aircraft along with all those on board and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie or not. It has chosen to reject the request of some of those closest to some of the murdered passengers for a full review of the case including evidence accruing since the Zeist trial, through a further appeal.

We have been forced to the belief based on more than 30 years of study that there are aspects of our Scottish criminal justice system that are simply not fit for purpose. We have never wanted revenge even against the actual perpetrators themselves, looking instead for what can be done to improve our world in the name of those who died so cruelly and avoidably back in 1988. One of those improvements might be a full review of why the current system seems to defend itself against all criticism rather than address the deeply held doubts of those who have suffered from their marginalisation for so long.

More than 31 years after the atrocity the Government’s documents relating to it are still being sequestered in a special category of security in the National Archives where they are not accessible to requests under FOI nor from the media. Why would they do that? Government in secrecy is not democracy, any more than justice delayed is justice.

Let us make the clearing up of these cruel mysteries our vision for 2020.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Megrahi's trial "deeply flawed"

[In today's edition of The Times there appears an obituary of Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya. After his retirement from the Foreign Office, Oliver Miles was a frequent commentator in the media on matters relating to Libya including, inevitably, the Lockerbie case. References to him on this blog can be found here. What follows comes from a report in The Times on 14 August 2009:]

Relatives of Lockerbie victims were denied their final chance of discovering the truth yesterday when the only man convicted of the atrocity abruptly dropped his appeal.

The decision of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, who is expected to be freed from prison in Scotland next week allowing his return to Libya, sparked charges of a top-level cover-up.

Politicians, relatives and experts accused the Scottish government of striking a deal with the convicted terrorist: that in return for his repatriation he would abandon an appeal that might have exposed a grave miscarriage of justice. “It’s pretty likely there was a deal,” said Oliver Miles, a former British Ambassador to Libya, who told The Times that the British and Scottish governments had been very anxious to avoid the appeal. (...)

Al-Megrahi’s lawyers said he had dropped his appeal because his health had deteriorated sharply, though Scottish law would permit the appeal to continue even after his death.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, strenuously denied that any pressure had been put on him. “We have no interest in pressurising people to drop appeals. Why on earth should we? That’s not our position — never has been,” he said.

But the Scottish government faced a wave of scepticism. Mr Miles called al-Megrahi’s original trial “deeply flawed” and said that both Scottish and British governments wanted no appeal because it would be very embarrassing.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Scottish Government minister who released Megrahi wins seat in UK Parliament

[What follows is the text of a Press Association news agency report, as published today on the website of the Belfast Telegraph:]

Former Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has returned to front-line politics after securing a seat at Westminster.

Mr MacAskill, who during his tenure at Holyrood sanctioned the release of the Lockerbie bomber, took East Lothian from Labour with 21,156 votes to Martin Whitfield’s 17,270.

Justice secretary in Alex Salmond’s government from 2007 to 2014, Mr MacAskill left office following Nicola Sturgeon’s appointment as First Minister and stepped down as an MSP in 2016.

He was thrust into the global spotlight in 2009 when he opted to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.

Megrahi, who had cancer, died in his home country in 2012.

He remains the only person ever convicted for the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 in December 1998, which killed 270 people.

Mr MacAskill was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a list MSP representing the Lothians, before winning the constituency seat of Edinburgh East and Musselburgh in 2007 and then Edinburgh Eastern in 2011.

[RB: A review by James Robertson of Kenny MacAskill's book about the Lockerbie case can be read here, and another by John Ashton can be read here.]

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

"Unfortunately, all I’ve seen is that the wheels of justice grind infinitely slow"

[What follows is excerpted from an obituary of Allan Gerson, published today on the website of The Washington Post:]

Allan Gerson, a Washington lawyer and legal scholar who helped pioneer the practice of suing foreign governments in US courts for complicity in terrorism, representing victims’ families in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, died Dec 1 at his home in the District [of Columbia]. He was 74. (...)

As a young Justice Department trial lawyer, he pursued Nazi war criminals who had immigrated to the United States, later rising to become senior counsel to two US ambassadors to the United Nations, Jeane J Kirkpatrick and Gen Vernon A Walters.

Throughout, he maintained that the law had a decisive role in public policy and international affairs — a belief that drove his decade-long fight for justice for the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec 21, 1988, en route to New York from London.

The bombing killed all 259 passengers and crew — along with 11 people on the ground — and remains the deadliest terrorist attack in British history. Among the victims were 189 Americans, including many study-abroad students from Syracuse University.

Mr Gerson launched what began as a seemingly quixotic legal effort, seeking to obtain compensation for victims’ families from the government of Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi, which was accused of carrying out the bombing. His work spurred new legislation that paved the way for lawsuits against countries including Syria, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya, where a legal team negotiated a $2.7 billion settlement in 2003 for the Lockerbie bombing.

“It took a lot of creative lawyering to come up with a system that would enable those victims to recover,” said Beth Van Schaack, an international criminal lawyer who teaches human rights at Stanford Law School. “There was no long history of precedents to draw on,” she added. “They were making stuff up as they went along . . . and now it’s become a standard practice. If a terrorist attack happens, there are lawyers who specialize in this area.”

Mr. Gerson’s work on the case emerged out of a 1992 op-ed he wrote in The New York Times, calling for the United Nations to create a claims commission to compensate survivors’ families using Libyan assets. His article caught the attention of Bruce M Smith, a former Pan Am pilot whose wife was killed in Lockerbie and who retained Mr Gerson in an effort to bring the UN proposal to fruition.

That idea never took off, leading Mr Gerson to launch his campaign to sue Libya for damages — a gambit that tested the centuries-old doctrine of sovereign immunity, in which governments are effectively considered above the law, not subject to civil suits or criminal prosecution without their consent. It was also unusual in that Mr Gerson was representing just one of the victims’ relatives, Smith, with other families taking part in a suit charging Pan Am with negligence for failing to detect the bomb.

“If we’d known all the difficulties at the outset,” he later told Washington City Paper, “we probably never would have proceeded.”

Mr. Gerson partnered with a recent law school graduate, Mark S Zaid, and filed suit in a federal court in New York in 1993. By then, he had been forced out of the Washington office of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, where a colleague was hired to take on Gaddafi as a client, resulting in a conflict of interest.

Their case proved unsuccessful amid sovereign immunity concerns. But as it proceeded, Mr Gerson and Zaid embarked on a new tack, drafting and championing what became the 1996 Anti­terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which enabled lawsuits against countries designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.

In a phone interview, Zaid said he took the lead on drafting the legislation but credited Mr Gerson with overseeing the broader strategy, and with helping to forge political connections that smoothed its passage in Congress.

“He was very much a visionary, trying to come up with innovative legal theories to pursue claims that other people would have written off without any second thought,” he said. “He saw in his mind a path forward to accomplish justice, especially for these victims of terrorism that no one else was thinking of at the time.”

The legislation was signed into law following another terrorist attack, the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. After Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 2001, a civil suit against Libya moved ahead, resulting in $10 million compensation for each victim, paid out over several years from an escrow account in a Swiss bank.

In 2016, Congress overrode President Barack Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which carved out further exemptions to sovereign immunity and enabled 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged support for the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mr Gerson was part of a team representing many of the families, and the case was still working its way through the courts when he died.

“There is a famous quote, that the wheels of justice grind infinitely slow but infinitely fine,” he told City Paper in 2002, while still awaiting resolution on Lockerbie. “Unfortunately, all I’ve seen is that the wheels of justice grind infinitely slow.” (...)

Mr Gerson developed close relationships with some of the families of the Lockerbie bombing victims and discussed their plight in The Price of Terror (2001), written with journalist Jerry Adler. The book also covered the legal drama surrounding the terrorist attack, looking somewhat optimistically toward the future.

“Terrorists who might be undeterred by the threat of American military force,” the authors wrote, “must now weigh the possibility of retaliation by the world’s largest contingent of lawyers.”

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Lockerbie verdict "an aberration in the history of international law"

[What follows is an English translation (by me, with assistance from Google Translate) of an article published today on the website of the German newspaper Die Welt:]

Verdict over Lockerbie attack to be reviewed

In 1988, a bomb tore apart a plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.  A Libyan intelligence officer was convicted for the terrorist attack. But there are some indications that he was not the culprit. At the beginning of 2020, the case could be reconsidered.

More than 30 years after the attack on a jumbo jet of the former US airline Pan Am over Lockerbie, Scotland, a completely new legal review of the terrorist act may take place. In 2001, the Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basit Ali al-Megrahi was convicted as the culprit, but his family has applied for a review.

According to information obtained by Welt am Sonntag, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) will decide at the beginning of 2020 whether to allow an appeal to the High Court of Justiciary, the highest criminal court in Scotland. 

In Germany, the Lockerbie case made headlines in the spring.  The SCCRC had made requests for judicial assistance to the German judiciary, and dozens of former employees of the GDR state security were interrogated. [RB: The interrogation of former East German Stasi officers took place at the instigation of Scottish police and prosecutors, not the SCCRC, as explained here and here. We do not know what information the SCCRC is seeking in Germany, but here is what I said to a Scottish journalist in July:  "I really have no idea what it is that the SCCRC is seeking evidence about in Germany. The only German connections that spring readily to mind are (a) Operation Autumn Leaves in Neuss []; (b) the alleged movement of the bomb suitcase through Frankfurt Airport; and (c) Edwin Bollier's supply of MEBO timers to the East German Stasi. Because the court order granting the SCCRC a European Investigation Order refers to a specific person and his involvement with the Pan Am 103 case (and to possible criminal proceedings), I think (a) is the most likely. But this is merely guess-work."]

The background is that in the early 90s the investigation also followed a trail to East Berlin, which is now being pursued again. The bomb aboard the Boeing 747 exploded on December 21, 1988, killing all 259 passengers and crew. Eleven inhabitants from Lockerbie also died.

The verdict against the Libyan agent al-Megrahi is controversial. Austrian international law expert Hans Köchler, who observed the Lockerbie trial for the United Nations, told Welt am Sonntag: "The Lockerbie trial was more like a secret service operation than ordinary court proceedings." The result was an "aberration in the history of international law" that the international community must correct for its own sake.

The British doctor Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the attack, considers a new procedure overdue. Swire told the newspaper, "I expected my country to find the truth, the whole truth." That the truth has been suppressed so far is "an insult to my murdered daughter."

The SCCRC deals with miscarriages of justice, and describes itself as "independent of Parliament, the Scottish Government, the Crown, the judiciary and the defense." As early as May 2018, the Commission stated that it was "in the interest of justice" to accept the request of the family of the convicted Libyan to consider whether they should be allowed to contest the verdict. At that time it stated that it wished to undertake a "total review", which is now almost complete, reports Welt am Sonntag.

A preliminary investigation into Lockerbie (file reference 50 Js 42.401 / 88) is pending at the public prosecutor's office in Frankfurt am Main. The authority is acting in support of the Scots: "Currently, in Germany witness hearings are taking place by way of legal assistance," said the prosecutor to Welt am Sonntag. In the disaster, four Germans lost their lives, two women and two men, from Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia.

[RB: A much longer article, with extensive interviews with Dr Jim Swire, Edwin Bollier and Professor Hans Köchler also appears today, behind a paywall, in Welt am Sonntag]

Friday, 15 November 2019

Guantanamo trials a reaction to US dissatisfaction with Lockerbie process

[What follows is the opening section of a very interesting article headed War Crimes, Justice, and the National Interest published yesterday on the website of The Tower, the newspaper of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC:]

Lawrence J Morris, chief of staff and counselor to Catholic University President John Garvey, was presented with the Mirror of Justice Scholars Award on Thursday, November 7th in the Slowinski courtroom at Columbus Law School. Morris’ role as chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo military commissions during the 9/11 trials was recognized with the award. It was presented by the St John Paul II Guild of Catholic Lawyers, which advocates the achievement of justice through law.

Subject to almost two decades of humanitarian criticism, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was established in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Enacted by the George Bush administration, the facility was the result of swift action in the war on terrorism following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Twenty men believed to be involved in the attacks were detained on January 11th, 2002 and the prison population expanded to nearly 700 by May of 2003.

Morris was head of the Army’s criminal law branch during the establishment of the prison and was eventually asked to be chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions. 

Morris argued in 2002 for a public trial of the suspected 9/11 terrorists. He wanted to uphold the standards of the American justice system while still laying “bare the scope of al Qaeda’s alleged conspiracy,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Morris’ proposal was disregarded by the Bush administration which desired more rapid prosecution. Those accused were interrogated clandestinely as the priority of senior officials was prevention of future attacks over standard court proceedings. 

The Bush administration’s initial decision to deny public trials led to disarray. Several setbacks occurred and destructive allegations against Guantanamo drew public attention. Rumors of torture and abuse of inmates spread rapidly to civil rights groups and law professionals. The untimely combination of poor public image and internal disarray lead the administration to bring the cases to public trial, which they then asked Morris to conduct. He hoped to reintroduce military commissions, which are, as described by Morris, a “judicial mechanism and what is colloquially known as war-crimes tribunals.” Morris illustrated this with reference to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland, which lead to the deaths of 270 people. 

Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi produced the Libyan agents accused of the bombing in Lockerbie, who went to trial on the condition that “they would be tried under Scottish law in a Dutch courtroom,” said Morris. “Needless to say, there were no Americans involved.” [RB: Gaddafi was not the prime minister of Libya, but the "Leader of the Revolution". American lawyers from the US Department of Justice were in fact very heavily involved in the Zeist trial, as was noted by the UN Observer, Professor Hans Köchler, in his report on the trial and as can be seen in the references on this blog to Brian Murtagh and Dana Biehl.]

Thirteen years after the Lockerbie bombing, only one of the agents was convicted.

“We took from Lockerbie a sense of the limitations of relying on other sovereigns for justice,” says Morris.

In 2001, the young Bush administration spotted the similarities between the Lockerbie case and the 9/11 attacks and was looking to make rapid changes in response to past administrations. The thirteen-year delay of Lockerbie was unacceptable to the Bush administration, leading to their failed and controversial interrogation techniques which ultimately turned them to Morris’ appointment as the conductor of the public trials.

Morris turned to military commissions last used after World War II and “began drafting trial regulations and debating points of law with architects of the administration’s broad vision of presidential power,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Morris believed in the provision of due process to those being tried, allowing them similar court proceedings as those of US civilian court cases. However, the administration was steadfast in its view of the accused, one which saw the terrorists as below the fairness for which Morris advocated and which saw itself as above standard court practices. Morris and his team were presented once again with the issue of the disconnect between the meaning of justice to the White House and that to military lawyers, after the previous rejection of Morris’ proposal for public trials.

“Using conventional courts was insufficient [and] unable to bring these killers to justice in any matter that would be timely and just,” said Morris. “There was a need to make a point through the courts… that this was an unlawful attack by unlawful combatants and therefore to resurrect a dormant mechanism for justice that has not been used in years.” 

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Far from a final answer

[On the occasion Syracuse University's annual Week of Remembrance for its 35 students who died in the Pan Am 103 tragedy, the website of central New York State's Spectrum News has published a long article on the Lockerbie disaster. The following are excerpts:]

Soon after the bombing, police and military fanned out on foot. They’d eventually scour hundreds of square miles.

It was the largest murder investigation in British history. In the end, it all came down to a piece of evidence so tiny it would fit on a fingertip.

After initially focusing on a possible Iranian connection, more attention was turning to Libya and its leader, Moamar Qaddafi. The pattern of Libyan action and US response had been building throughout the 1980s.

In 1989, investigators in Scotland discovered some clothing fragments. Embedded in them was a tiny piece of what had been a circuit board commanding a timer that set off the explosion aboard Pan Am 103. It was a brand of timer sold to Libya.

Forensics experts traced the clothing to a shop in the island nation of Malta. The owner of the shop identified the man who had purchased the clothes. He turned out to be a low-level operative in Libyan intelligence named Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

A second Libyan charged was Khalifa Fhima, a former official of Libyan airlines at Malta’s Luqa Airport. (...)

It took years and tough United Nations sanctions, but Libya’s government eventually handed over al-Megrahi and Fhima for an unusual trial.

“I wanted to kill them. If I could have gone and sat there with an Uzi, I would have shot them dead on the spot,” said Susan Cohen, the mother of a Flight 103 victim. “No regrets, even if I got shot for it. And you want to know something? I still feel the same way.”

When the final verdict came 12 years after the bombing, the three-judge Scottish panel found al-Megrahi guilty and acquitted Fhima. Al-Megrahi would be handed a life sentence in Scottish prison. (...)

In 2015, the BBC reported that the Scottish government had named two new suspects, both reportedly behind bars in Libya at the time. Abdullah al-Senussi is the former Libyan intelligence chief under Gaddafi. Mohammed Abouajela Masud is a suspected bomb maker. Tracking them has been a challenge. (...)

But not everyone is convinced they’re on the right trail. Over the years, an entirely different theory has emerged about whom, and which country, were responsible.

In July 1988, a US warship came under attack by Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf. In the midst of the confrontation, the crew aboard the USS Vincennes spotted what it believed to be an approaching Iranian fighter jet closing in on their position. The US response was lethal.

It wasn’t long before the Vincennes crew realized they had made a tragic mistake. It was not an Iranian fighter jet, but an Iranian passenger jet — with 290 people onboard.

There was a quick promise of Iranian revenge.

In the months to come, intelligence agencies would report a series of meetings, organized by a leading Iranian government radical named Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur. Among those in attendance was Ahmed Jibril, leader of a splinter Palestinian group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Jibril was a close ally of Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Jibril's deputy was Hafez Dalkamoni, a man being closely watched by German police. Police knew of a plot to bomb aircraft flying out of Frankfurt. When they made their move, Dalkamoni and several others were arrested. Weapons were found, including a bomb hidden in a radio cassette player. There were indications that five bombs were produced. Only four are recovered.

A man with close ties to the PLFP-GC was Mohammed Abu Talb. Talb had visited Frankfurt and was later spotted in Malta, shortly before the Lockerbie bombing. At his home, police later found a calendar with the date — December 21, 1988 — circled.

Did Iran pay the PFLP-GC to exact its revenge? An airliner for airliner? (...)

The man who headed the Scottish side of the case against Libya says it’s possible the Libyan agents, knowing of the Frankfurt arrests, may have used details of that plot to cover their own moves, including housing the bomb in a Toshiba cassette player.

Relatives of those who died in Lockerbie sense that the case against the two Libyans was far from a final answer.

Monday, 16 September 2019

In the path of terrorists

[This is the heading over an article published on this date in 2000 on The Lockerbie Trial website, curated by Ian Ferguson and me during the Zeist trial and Megrahi's first appeal. The author is Joe Mifsud, a journalist and writer who covered the trial for various Maltese news media and who is now a judge in Malta. It reads as follows:]

A terrorist, like any other criminal, will do what he can to cover his tracks.  The Maltese origin of clothing in the bomb suitcase does not establish that either the suitcase or the bomb was once in Malta.

The clothing in the bomb suitcase, which was identifiable as having been manufactured in Malta, bore labels to this effect, enabled Royal Armament Research and Development (RARDE) to determine the country of origin as Malta.  So these labels had not been removed by the terrorists.

The Lockerbie investigators established that six items of the clothing and an umbrella, which originated in Malta were new and had been purchased new from the same shop in Malta on the same occasion.

These items of clothing had been purchased from Mary’s House in Sliema, weeks not day's before 21 December 1988.  The prosecution is claiming that the clothes were bought on  7 December, while the defense is suggesting 23 November 1988 as the date.

In my opinion the facts and matters set out above are consistent with an attempt by the terrorists to distract the attention of the investigating authorities away from Frankfurt or Heathrow to Malta in the event of the bomb being detected or as in fact happened of the bomb exploding above land and debris from the bomb and the bomb suitcase being recovered.

It is inherently unlikely that terrorists would have tried to place the bomb suitcase on board Air Malta KM 180 on 21 December 1988 for the following four reasons.

1.  Terrorists do not expose themselves and their plans to any unnecessary risk of detention or of error;

2.  Accordingly the terrorists responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103 would not have routed the bomb suitcase through Frankfurt and chosen to run the risk of it passing undetected through the security systems of three different airports on two different airlines when Air Malta during that period flew only three flights each week to Frankfurt but ten flights each week to Heathrow.

3.  Further if the bomb consisted of a timer device, terrorists would not have run the unpredictable risk of the passage of the bomb suitcase being delayed in one or more of the following ways:

a)  on the ground at Luqa as a result of mechanical failure, poor weather, security alert, air traffic control or any other reason;
b)  by being diverted away from Frankfurt for any of the reasons at above;
c)  above Frankfurt as a result of air traffic control delays for incoming flights (as in fact happened);
d)  by missing the interline connection at Frankfurt as a result of the bomb suitcase being lost, mishandled or detected in the course of x-ray or baggage reconciliation procedures;
e)  on the ground at Frankfurt for any of the reasons at (a) above;
f)  by being diverted away from Heathrow for any of the reasons at (a) above;
g)  above Heathrow as a result of air traffic control delays for incoming flights;
h)  by missing the interline connection at Heathrow for any of the reasons at (d) above;
i)   on the ground at Heathrow as a result of the connecting transatlantic aircraft being delayed, mechanical failure, poor weather, security alert or any other reason.

4.  Further if the bomb consisted of a barometric pressure device triggered by altitude which itself triggered a timer, terrorists could not have avoided (alternatively would not have risked) the bomb being prematurely triggered on board KM 180 or on board PA 103A from Frankfurt to Heathrow, and then detonating on board either of these flights or on the ground at Frankfurt or at Heathrow.

No terrorist could have predicted in advance the exact altitude at which either flight would have flown or, if such a prediction had been made, no terrorist could have guaranteed that the aircraft would have remained at that altitude and would not have been ordered away from it by air traffic control.  The bomb on board Pan Am 103 exploded approximately 35 minutes after take-off from Heathrow.

It is not clear for me why the Lockerbie investigators choose to blame Malta and Air Malta in this case, when it is so clear that we are the scapegoats for others that lacked security at their airports.