Friday 24 November 2023

The conspiracies are as plausible as the official explanation

[What follows is a review published in yesterday's edition of the London Evening Standard:]

For a disaster that happened 35 years ago, the story of Pan Am Flight 103’s destruction over Lockerbie has a very 21st-Century feel.

This bombing, which caused the deaths of 270 people over a quiet Scottish town, has a confused and controversial epilogue. Moving from the attack itself and the immediate aftermath, this four-part Sky documentary traces the hunt for the bombers and the personal and public struggles of the victims’ families. 

This sense of protracted tragedy is entangled with espionage and geopolitics of the most amoral and conflicted kind, where concepts of national interest supersede individual human lives, so it was inevitable that the bombing has become a focus for conspiracy theories. That the conspiracies are as plausible as the official explanation only makes it murkier. 

At 7.03pm on 21 December 1988, residents of Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway heard the explosion. Those out in the fields would have seen a fireball falling to earth. Those unlucky enough to have been in its path were vaporised by exploding aviation fuel.

The Boeing 747 crashed through the edge of the town spraying debris and the dead over many miles. All 259 on board died that night along with 11 on the ground. Even given the sensitivity of the producers, the cumulative grief is hard to watch and harder to forget.

Viewers have no reference point for a golf course strewn with a hundred corpses or bodies rained on to the roofs of terraced houses. The image of a red suitcase embedded in Scottish mud and the sound of screaming families at JFK airport conveys the unimaginable.

The intimate stories begin with the families and Lockerbie residents, traumatised yet finding an odd comfort in communal loss. Among them is the English doctor Jim Swire, who has spent his life since the crash in pursuit of the truth about those responsible for the death of his 23-year-old daughter Flora.

Swire’s grief evolves into obsession (in 1990 he smuggled a fake bomb on to a flight to New York to prove the inadequacy of Heathrow security) and his testimony, including how his interpretation of events changed over time, provides the moral frame of the film and a necessary touchstone of human dignity and love amid realpolitik at its most cynical. 

The film talks to FBI agents who began their investigation at the end of a decade of state-sponsored terrorism linked to anti-American regimes in the Middle East. The agents are led away from the prime suspects, Iranian proxies the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Council (PFLP-GC), towards Libyans via Malta and Frankfurt.

It had been suggested that Iran used this Palestinian group based in Lebanon (where US and UK hostages had been taken) to exact revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by an American warship a year before, but evidence from the crime scene lead the FBI to two Libyan intelligence agents, including the man eventually convicted of mass murder by Scottish judges in a Netherlands court, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. 

For eight years the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi (“Mad Dog”, as Ronald Reagan called him), refused to hand over the two suspects. Swire went to see him in an extraordinary act of recklessness. “I was pretty crazy because of the freshness of the bereavement and I’d have done anything I could.”

In Tripoli, surrounded by Gaddafi’s female bodyguards with AK47s, he showed the dictator a briefcase full of pictures of his daughter and he asked him to allow the two men to go on trial, before pinning a badge that said “Lockerbie, The Truth Must be Known” on Gaddafi’s lapel.

By the time of the trial in 2000, the consensus about who was guilty had collapsed. The CIA and the FBI operated in suspicion and sometimes outright contempt for each other, a Libyan supergrass was discredited, the shopkeeper who sold clothes in which the bomb was wrapped was paid $2m by the FBI and the Swiss manufacturer of timers allegedly used in the bomb changed his testimony at the trial.

That Gaddafi’s son Saif stated Libya accepted responsibility but didn’t admit to actually doing it does lend credence to the view that they paid $2.86bn in compensation as the price of readmittance to the global oil trade after years of crippling US sanctions. 

What is left behind are two starkly defined camps who believe either justice was served or there was a cover-up – and between them are families in a state of purgatorial uncertainty. Among the politics, the film shows one of the recurring visits to Scotland of the Ciulla family from New York, who come to remember Frank Ciulla and to be reunited with the Lockerbie couple Hugh and Margaret Connell who discovered Frank’s body still strapped to his seat. 

Many of these families, predominantly American, mix their anger with suspicion about the conduct of their own government. Swire says he believes the al-Megrahi trial was a sham and the PFLP-GC were responsible. Rev John Mosey from Birmingham, whose 19-year-old daughter Helga died, says he is 99.9% certain al-Megrahi was innocent. The FBI insist they got their man. An ex-CIA operative says they were wrong all along. 

The moral authority of Swire is so powerful it is almost overwhelming – he is only really challenged once to which he reacts with the anger of a man who has spent more than 30 years fighting for something not yet realised. Lockerbie plays to the idea that government agencies are incapable of telling the truth, something corroding trust in institutions in the US and increasingly in Britain. 

This is a poised and sensitive documentary. It’s moving in so many ways that at times it’s hard to ready yourself for the blows, even when you know they’re coming. What is left are open wounds: grief that does not rest and no sense of an ending.

Lockerbie is available to watch on Sky Documentaries and Now from 25 November

Thursday 16 November 2023

Dismayed by a 35-year-long miscarriage of justice

[What follows is excerpted from a report published yesterday evening on the website of The Telegraph:]

Ever since Flora was killed on Pan Am Flight 103, Dr Jim Swire has been searching for answers – and says the FBI has the wrong man

Flora Swire is everywhere in her parents’ home. There are sketches and photos of her pinned to a board in the kitchen, on the mantelpiece, on the cover of a book; her portrait fills the wall across from their bed. There remains too a lock of her hair – a heartbreaking keepsake taken when the Swires saw her last, almost 35 years ago, after a bomb exploded beneath her feet in the Lockerbie disaster.

It was on 21 December 1988, the eve of her 24th birthday, that Flora, a promising neurology student who had just been accepted to do a PhD at Cambridge, took her seat on a plane bound for New York. She had hoped to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, but would never make it.

Thirty-eight minutes after taking off at Heathrow, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in the sky over the town of Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, with such force on a windy night that the debris landed across an 845-square-mile radius from southwest Scotland to the east coast of England. The fairylights on Christmas trees all over Lockerbie blew their fuses, along with the rest of the grid; smoking orange flames illuminated the town, which quickly filled with the stench of jet fuel. (...)

The investigation has remained open ever since, with one man, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan national, the only person ever to be convicted of the atrocity. He was convicted in 2001 and given a life sentence, and died in 2012. But in February this year, the case returned to the courts for the first time in more than two decades.

Another Libyan national, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi (known as Mas’ud) has been accused of making the Lockerbie bomb, and is now awaiting trial (he has pleaded not guilty). The development should offer some shred of hope for the families whose lives irreparably changed that night. Yet Dr Jim Swire, Flora’s father, ‘has no interest’ in the prospect of Mas’ud’s conviction.

‘I know he didn’t make the bomb,’ Jim tells me. ‘I know who made the bomb.’

As such, the official criminal verdict on events to date – upcoming trial included – is, in his view at least, nothing more than ‘twaddle’.

Jim, now 87, had been writing Christmas cards on that December night in 1988 when his wife Jane told him that a plane had just come down over Scotland. He tried calling Heathrow, where Flora had been dropped off by her younger sister, Cathy, a few hours earlier – he spent five hours on hold to Pan Am as news coverage blared, showing body parts hanging from a roof, the 30ft hole a chunk of the 747 had left in a Lockerbie street, and relatives howling in anguish at JFK Airport. When he finally got through, staff confirmed the worst possible news: Flora had been on the flight. (...)

Jim, an old Etonian who went to Cambridge, is still spry in his late 80s – part-raconteur, part activist, wearing a sharp grey suit and trainers. Today, Jim, who became a GP but ultimately left the profession after his daughter’s death, and Jane, 84, take turns bustling between the kitchen and back garden of their home in the Cotswolds town of Chipping Camden with offers of cheese sandwiches and cups of tea. It is a cosy idyll that conceals the sea of names and dates and evidence-tag numbers still etched on their minds.

Some 35 years on, the Swires’ agony remains barely beneath the surface, the memories of their eldest child both a precious gift and cruel reminder of what they have lost. ‘To lose a close family member gives you a life sentence immediately,’ Jim says. ‘Your whole life is altered. And you have to start asking yourself how, how can you go on living, or how can Jane go on living, with a loss so terrible as this?’

Their experiences are documented in Lockerbie, a new four-part documentary that airs on Sky next week. It is a panoptic watch, following the lives of the residents in the town that was, until that day, just a fish ’n’ chip pitstop, 75 miles from Glasgow, before it was completely upturned. The documentary follows the families of UK and US victims, and officials from across the town’s police force, the FBI and the CIA, too. But it also lays bare how devastation led to remarkable acts of humanity, as residents mounted a volunteer effort to wash the clothes and teddies scattered thousands of miles from where they should have ended up, and sent them back to passengers’ loved ones; some of which resulted in relationships with grief-stricken families an ocean away that remain strong. Their lives are, now, forever intertwined.

But underlying the heartfelt stories is a darker thread – for decades on, opinions about who was to blame for the disaster are more divided than ever.

Jim remains dismayed by what he sees as a 35-year-long miscarriage of justice. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he became the spokesperson for the UK Families Flight 103 group and in the intervening decades, he has met numerous experts and officials, and had independent reviews of evidence undertaken. All of which has convinced him that justice has not been served – and that the wrong man was imprisoned, just as another ‘wrong man’ is now about to be tried.

His theory – that Libya wasn’t responsible for the bombing – runs counter to al-Megrahi’s conviction and Mas’ud’s arrest, and has been dismissed by many. But there are others in his corner, too. ‘Enough honest, reliable and knowledgeable people have discovered the awful truth behind this to know that the truth will now be able to look after itself,’ Jim says. ‘If I die tomorrow, I know the truth will eventually come out.’

Among those people is former CIA investigator John Holt, the long-time handler for the principal US government witness at al-Megrahi’s trial, Libyan agent Abdul Majid Giaka. Holt said at the time that Giaka never provided ‘any evidence pointing to Libya or any indication of knowing anything about that nation’s involvement in the two years after the bombing’ – despite later testifying. But when accused of lying under cross-examination, Giaka replied: ‘I had no interest in telling anybody any lies.’

Others who have been vocal about what they view as Libya’s wrongful implication include solicitor Clare Connelly, director of the Lockerbie Trial Briefing Unit, an independent project established by the School of Law of the University of Glasgow, and other UK relatives, including John Moseley [sic], whose 19-year-old daughter Helga was killed on Flight 103.

Al-Megrahi’s trial took place 22 years ago at Camp Zeist, a Scottish law court set up in the Netherlands (deemed a neutral territory), where judges heard that he had placed a bomb in a Samsonite suitcase. Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, his co-accused, was acquitted.

There was no smoking gun for the prosecution, but al-Megrahi was found guilty based on a series of links they felt couldn’t otherwise be explained: including that he had an office in Switzerland down the hall from a clockmaker whose device was used to make the bomb; and that clothing fragments found alongside remains of the bomb were traced back to a Maltese shop that its owner, Tony Gauci, said al-Megrahi had visited.

At the same time, there were escalating tensions between the West and Libyan premier Colonel Gaddafi, who was suspected to have ordered the bombing of a nightclub frequented by US personnel in West Berlin in 1986. Judges in al-Megrahi’s trial conceded the case included ‘a number of uncertainties and qualifications’; yet he was sentenced to life. (Libya later paid $2.7 billion to families of Lockerbie bombing victims, though this was considered a political move rather than an admission of guilt.) (...)

Time has only bolstered his defence of ‘poor’ al-Megrahi, having formed personal relationships with both him and Gaddafi before they died. They would exchange Christmas cards, and when al-Megrahi was given compassionate release in 2009 following a diagnosis of prostate cancer – returning to a hero’s welcome on the tarmac at Tripoli airport – Jim travelled to Libya to see him on his deathbed. At the time, Jim recalled al-Megrahi’s words to him: ‘I am going to a place where I hope soon to see Flora. I will tell her that her father is my friend.’

He was, in Jim’s eyes, only ever an unwitting pawn in geopolitically motivated ‘deception’ that he says is even now preventing justice for Flora and the other victims from being served. He also took a handful of clandestine trips to Gaddafi’s compound (he did not tell any authorities, and only informed Jane imminently beforehand), in which he would hear that the regime had not been to blame. On leaving their first meeting, Jim pinned a UK Families Flight 103 badge to Gaddafi’s lapel as a show of solidarity for the truth. He believes other UK families are onside, although many have never spoken publicly. But there are certainly others, particularly those in the US, who see this affinity with Gaddafi as a grave error.

For Jim, there are two pieces of evidence that point to al-Megrahi’s wrongful conviction. The 2001 case heard that the explosive had first travelled from Malta to Frankfurt, where Flight 103 began its journey to New York. (The London Heathrow stop was a layover.) But Jim believes the bomb was planted at Heathrow. At al-Megrahi’s appeal in 2002, a baggage handler told lawyers that the baggage build-up area at Terminal 3 had been broken into the night before the bombing.

The other piece of evidence relates to the bomb fragments. According to John Ashton, a researcher on al-Megrahi’s legal team, documents not disclosed during the original trial found differences between the metals of the timers being supplied to the Libyans at the time and those within the fragments police recovered from the Lockerbie site. The circuit-board patterns, however, did align, deemed to be the more important evidence.

Clare Connelly of the Lockerbie Trial Briefing Unit also questions the veracity of shopkeeper Tony Gauci’s evidence, as there have been claims that he was paid in connection with his participation in the inquiry, which she says would be ‘totally contrary to the interests of justice’. But in November 2013 the Crown Office said: ‘No witness was offered any inducement by the Crown or the Scottish police before and during the trial and there is no evidence that any other law ­enforcement agency offered such an inducement.’

As for who was actually responsible, Jim argues it was Iran, not Libya. He goes on to suggest that it might have been a retaliatory attack for the US shooting down an Iranian passenger plane, thought to have been incorrectly identified as a fighter jet in July 1988, which killed 290 innocent civilians. In his view, with American hostages held in Iran at the time and an upcoming election, the finger had to be pointed elsewhere. ‘What we’re being told is absolute nonsense from beginning to end. It was designed to protect the relationship between Britain and America and to help in getting home American hostages held by Iranian interests back in ’88.’

Jim insists that the bombmaker was not Mas’ud, as the US alleges, but ‘a Jordanian who was a double agent, or even a triple agent’ – feeding intelligence both to his own country and the CIA, while making explosives for a militant group active in Palestine at the time, called the PFLP-GC. Others have theories of their own around Iran’s involvement: Holt has also said ‘there was a concerted effort, for unexplained reasons, to switch the original investigations away from Iran and the PFLP-GC’ – backing Jim’s belief that the focus on Libya was politically motivated.

For the officials who spent years putting together their case, however, Jim’s theory is not credible enough to upend ‘the biggest case the FBI ever had… I don’t believe, in the history of law enforcement, there was a crime quite like Pan Am 103.’ So says Richard Marquise, who led the FBI investigation. ‘I will never attack [Jim], I will never tell him he’s a liar or wrong. I will never say a negative thing, because I cannot feel his pain; I am sure it’s enormous. But I disagree with his assessment of the evidence.’ (...)

For Jim, his ‘obsession’ has been an outlet for the pain of losing Flora. As he puts it: ‘It has provided me with a way of coping with my grief.’

As for Jane, she has had little choice but to accept her husband’s dogged pursuit of answers; something Jim is painfully aware of. ‘[I often think] what is it doing to Jane, that I’m still doing this?’ he admits. (...)

There is another source of anguish for the Swires – a series of missteps without which Flora may never have boarded Flight 103 in the first place.

In late October 1988, West German police found a bomb hidden inside a Toshiba radio cassette player in an apartment in Neuss, believed to have been manufactured to detonate mid-air. The British Department of Transport (DoT) went on to warn airports and airlines of its existence via telex the next month.

Then, on 5 December, an anonymous threat was phoned in to the US embassy in Helsinki, stipulating that within two weeks, someone would carry a bomb on to a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US. Notices were put up on embassy walls, and US officials were told they could rebook on another flight home for Christmas if they so wished; Interpol informed 147 countries, Britain included – yet the ‘Helsinki warning’ was never made public.

Two days before Lockerbie, a circular featuring images of the explosives authorities feared had been designed to blow up planes was signed by the DoT’s principal aviation security advisor, but never sent out. (...)

Jim would like there to be an examination of the evidence in the International Criminal Court. He sees this as the only possible route to justice now – but each passing year makes it less likely.

‘Our numbers are dropping all the time from people dying off from old age,’ he says of the families’ group, ‘and I’m amazed that I haven’t long ago because the stress all this has been over the last 35 years – why I haven’t died of a heart attack, I don’t know… But I would love it if [the truth] were to come out while we were still around.’

John Dower, director of the new documentary, says that his main hope is that those involved in it will ‘get some resolution, some peace, because that’s what struck us most making this, the ongoing trauma. It’s 35 years later, but that trauma is still there.’

Lockerbie will be on Sky Documentaries and Now from 25 November

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Legal bid to give Lockerbie families access to Masud trial

[This is the headline over a report published today on the BBC News website. It reads in part:]

US politicians are being asked to allow people from 21 countries to listen live to the second Lockerbie bombing trial.

A Libyan man is currently in US custody, accused of making the device that destroyed Pan Am 103 on 21 December, 1988.

Of the 270 victims, 190 were from the US, 43 from the UK and the remaining from 19 other nations.

American prosecutors say their families should have access to a phone line to allow them to follow the case.

Trials in US federal courts are not televised and a judge has previously ruled there is no legal basis for allowing such a move.

Abu Agila Masud was handed over to the US authorities in as yet unexplained circumstances in Libya in December 2022.

Appearing in a Washington court under his full name Abu Agila Mohammed Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, the convicted bomb maker faces several charges, including destruction of an aircraft resulting in death.

He has entered a not guilty plea and so far no date for a trial has been set. (...)

Prosecutors from the US Department of Justice say many of the relatives of the victims are too old or infirm to travel to Washington to watch the court proceedings in person.

In their request to US lawmakers, they said: "This combination of advanced age and geographic distance and dispersion from Washington DC means that many victims face significant obstacles to obtain meaningful access to the court proceedings."

The application by the US prosecutors defines "victims" as anyone who suffered "direct or proximate harm" by the bombing, was present at or near the scene when it occurred or immediately afterwards, and their relatives.

On one view, that could include people in Lockerbie who witnessed the crash and its aftermath, along with members of the emergency services and military.

The American prosecutors also argue that the US investigation has involved international co-operation, in particular from police and the Crown Office in Scotland.

They are seeking statutory authority for the court to allow "remote video and telephone access" to preliminary evidential hearings and the trial itself.

Although video is mentioned, the application specifically requests the approval of a dedicated listen-only telephone line. (...)

The first Lockerbie trial took place at a specially-convened Scottish court sitting at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. Relatives of the victims were able to watch via remote video feeds in Scotland and the US.

That case ended with the conviction of Abdulbasset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of mass murder and jailed for life. (...) 

Scottish and American prosecutors alleged that the bombing was the work of the Libyan intelligence service and others were involved along with Megrahi.

The US justice department first announced criminal charges against Abu Agila Masud in December 2020.

They have alleged that he confessed to making the Lockerbie bomb after he was taken into custody following the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi's government in 2012.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Further preliminary steps in US prosecution of Abu Ajila Masud

The US Department of Justice has recently released the following information about the criminal proceedings in Washington DC against alleged Lockerbie bomb maker Abu Ajila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi:

"On September 29, 2023, the parties filed a joint status update, informing Judge Dabney L Friedrich of the status of discovery.  The  parties informed Judge Friedrich that the government had provided four productions to the defense and would shortly be providing a fifth, and that it was working on getting additional materials from Scotland and various countries.  The defense stated that it had received the discovery to date and was reviewing it. 

"On October 2, 2023, Judge Friedrich set a 'tentative' status hearing for December 15, 2023, at 1:00 pm in Courtroom 14.  At this point, we have no reason to believe that this status date will change, despite its 'tentative' status.  If it does change, we will notify you as soon as we are able to." 

Saturday 16 September 2023

Death announced of Abdul Ati al-Obeidi

I am deeply saddened to learn of the death at the age of 83 of Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, who held many offices in Libya during the Gaddafi era, including Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. From the time in November 1991 that the UK and the US brought charges against Libyan citizens in respect of the Lockerbie bombing, until the eventual compassionate release and repatriation of Abdelbaset Megrahi in August 2009, Obeidi was intimately involved in the Lockerbie case as chairman of the Libyan Government's Lockerbie committee. 

Over the years leading up to the voluntary surrender of Megrahi and Fhimah for trial in the Scottish Court in the Netherlands, and in the years following Megrahi's conviction, I had numerous meetings with Obeidi and invariably found him honest, trustworthy and transparent in all his dealings. He was always part of the solution, not part of the problem. I wish I could say the same about the British and American officials that I came in contact with over that period. But it would not be true.

Abdul Ati al-Obeidi has featured in many items posted on this blog. They can be accessed here.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Masud and "US counterterrorism's long arm of justice"

[What follows is excerpted from an article by Christopher P Costa headlined 9/11, Benghazi and US counterterrorism’s long arm of justice published yesterday on the website of The Hill, the house magazine of the United States Congress:]

Conventional wisdom in policymaking circles is that the US counterterrorism enterprise is nonpartisan. I agree. I saw firsthand how the Trump administration benefited from continuity grounded in professionalism and threaded to sound counterterrorism policy prescriptions passed on from previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican. 

After years of painstaking counterterrorism work, talking with both former terrorists and victims of terrorism, as well as attending terrorism trials, I’ve come to realize that continuity comes from a long institutional memory between administrations, and justice in these cases is often at the crossroads of law enforcement and counterterrorism operations. 

As FBI Director Christopher Wray noted, it took 34 years of painstaking investigative work to bring the maker of the Lockerbie bomb tied to the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 to justice this year. That effort is the province of foreign partners, the Department of Justice, the FBI and, eventually, a US court. Legal arrows – in terms of investigations, extraditions and trials – can be more potent than simply killing terrorists on battlefields overseas. The rule of law remains an indispensable tool for policymakers. 

This dedication to continuity drives the tenacity of the legal system to finish the work of prior administrations. (...)

First, policy continuity across political administrations has kept the nation safe from terrorism. Second, in light of the Lockerbie bomber’s extradition last December, justice and continuity matter deeply and are two sides of the same coin. (...)

Sometimes this continuity would have to carry on for decades before reaching closure.  

The Christmastime bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, for example, killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans, on Dec. 21, 1988, and last December, the FBI was finally able to take custody of a suspect for building the explosive device that downed the flight. As a result of the Justice Department’s focus and tenacity in concluding a case that began more than 30 years earlier, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud was then extradited to the United States to face prosecution for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history. (...) 

[RB: Masud was not "extradited" to the United States. He was kidnapped by a local militia and later, with the connivance of the Tripoli "government" handed over to US agents. Libyan law does not permit extradition of citizens to a foreign country for trial, only voluntary surrender by the suspect; and there is, and can be, no suggestion that Masud volunteered.]

In a time of political polarization, we can be sanguine about the professionalism of the US counterterrorism enterprise, and the long memory of United States justice, regardless of administration. Maybe that’s worth reflecting on this Sept 11 anniversary.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Libyan PM meets family of Lockerbie suspect

[This is the headline over a report published today on the Libya Review website. It reads as follows:]

On Monday, the Prime Minister of the Libyan Parliament-designated government, Osama Hammad met with the family of Lockerbie bombing suspect Abu Ajila Masoud Al-Marimi.

The Libyan national was a former intelligence officer. The Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) has handed over Masoud to the US administration, a move that was criticised across the country.

Hammad, along with members of the Libyan Parliament held a meeting with Masoud’s family, to discuss the latest updates regarding his extradition case and its merits.

During the meeting, Hammad expressed a firm stance against the “cowardly” extradition process executed against a Libyan citizen. The operation represents a clear violation of Libyan sovereignty.”

The PM emphasized that “this process was conducted by the US administration, with the complicity of the outgoing government, disregarding the rights of Libyan citizens shamefully.”

Furthermore, Hammad underscored the “importance of foreign countries respecting Libyan law, and highlighted the necessity of ensuring justice in the event of any accusations against a Libyan citizen.”

He affirmed that the Libyan judiciary is competent to address charges against its citizens, within Libyan territory.

The Prime Minister assured the family of Al-Marimi that the government “remains fully committed to staying updated on the developments of the case.”

Moreover, the government will “cover all the costs associated with a specialized law firm that will carefully examine the case, working towards the safe return of Abu Ajila to his family, and homeland.”

In June, the family of Abu Ajila Masoud raised concern over his deteriorating health, noting that he has recently been hospitalized due to multiple chronic illnesses.

Abdel Moneim Al-Marimi, a nephew of Abu Ajila, added the Libyan intelligence operative is set to appear before the court in October. Yet, he expressed grave concern over the lack of a defence team assigned to Abu Ajila’s case so far.

He explained that they are “unable to afford the fees of the legal team. We hired a new lawyer, at our own expense, other than the one assigned to follow up the case, to obtain information about the next session.”

Al-Marimi stated, “The US authorities have transferred Abu Ajila to a hospital. Regrettably, no family member has been able to make the trip to the US to be by his side.”

He also mentioned that Abu Ajila’s court hearing, related to the Lockerbie case, has been postponed until October.

Masoud, 71, could appear before US courts without an attorney, his family confirms. They noted that all parties that vowed to pay the costs of the legal team paid nothing and abandoned their pledges and promises.

Masoud’s family recently issued a statement denouncing the silence of the GNU, for not cooperating in knowing the fate of the Libyan citizen, as he is suffering from a chronic disease.

Friday 11 August 2023

Death announced of Libyan Lockerbie lawyer Ibrahim Legwell

[The death in Cairo this morning of Dr Ibrahim Legwell at the age of 90 has just been announced. Dr Legwell, as a Libyan lawyer, was involved in the Lockerbie case from the time that Libyan citizens were first publicly accused by the United States and the United Kingdom of responsibility for the bombing. What follows is an item that was posted on this blog on 11 October 2015.]

The genesis of the neutral venue Lockerbie proposal

[It was on this date in 1993 that it was announced, following a “legal summit” held in Tripoli involving the international team of lawyers assembled by Dr Ibrahim Legwell to assist him in advising Abdelbaset Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah, that the suspects were not prepared to surrender themselves for trial in Scotland. Those taking part from Scotland were Donald Macaulay QC and Alistair Duff.  I have previously described my own involvement as follows:]

The Libyan government asked me to be present in Tripoli while the team was meeting so that the government itself would have access to independent Scottish legal advice should the need arise. 

It was apparent that the Libyan government expectation was that the outcome of the meeting of the defence team would be a decision by the two accused voluntarily to agree to stand trial in Scotland.  I am able personally to testify to how much of a surprise and embarrassment it was to the Libyan government when the outcome of the meeting of the defence team was an announcement that the accused were not prepared to surrender themselves for trial in Scotland.  My meeting after the defence decision was revealed with the then Deputy Foreign Minister, Mousa Kousa (later head of external security and Foreign Minister) made this only too clear. 

In the course of a private meeting that I had a day later with Dr Legwell, he explained to me that the primary reason for the unwillingness of the accused to stand trial in Scotland was their belief that, because of unprecedented pre-trial publicity over the years, a Scottish jury could not possibly bring to their consideration of the evidence in this case the degree of impartiality and open-mindedness that accused persons are entitled to expect and that a fair trial demands.  A secondary consideration was the issue of the physical security of the accused if the trial were to be held in Scotland.  Not that it was being contended that ravening mobs of enraged Scottish citizens would storm Barlinnie prison, seize the accused and string them up from the nearest lamp posts.  Rather, the fear was that they might be snatched by special forces of the United States, removed to America and put on trial there (or, like Lee Harvey Oswald, suffer an unfortunate accident before being put on trial).

The Libyan government attitude remained, as it always had been, that they had no constitutional authority to hand their citizens over to the Scottish authorities for trial.  The question of voluntary surrender for trial was one for the accused and their legal advisers, and while the Libyan government would place no obstacles in the path of, and indeed would welcome, such a course of action, there was nothing that it could lawfully do to achieve it. (...)

Having mulled over the concerns expressed to me by Dr Legwell in October 1993, I returned to Tripoli and on 10 January 1994 presented a letter to him suggesting a means of resolving the impasse created by the insistence of the governments of the United Kingdom and United States that the accused be surrendered for trial in Scotland or America and the adamant refusal of the accused to submit themselves for trial by jury in either of these countries.  This was a detailed proposal, but in essence its principal elements were the following.

1. That a trial be held outside Scotland, ideally in the Netherlands, in which the governing law and procedure would be that followed in Scottish criminal trials on indictment but with this major alteration, namely that the jury of fifteen persons (not twelve, as in England) which is a feature of that procedure be replaced by a panel of judges -- ideally from states other than those principally affected by the disaster, but presided over by a Scottish judge -- who would have the responsibility of deciding not only questions of law but also the ultimate question of whether the guilt of the accused had been established on the evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

2.  That the prosecution be conducted by the Scottish public prosecutor, Lord Advocate, or his authorised representative.

3. That the defence of the accused persons be conducted by independent Scottish solicitors and counsel appointed by the accused.

4. That any appeals against conviction or sentence be heard and determined in Scotland by the High Court of Justiciary in its capacity as the Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal.

Although not expressly stated in the proposal, it was the clear implication (and this was understood by Dr Legwell) that in the event of the accused being convicted by the court, they would serve any sentence of imprisonment imposed upon them in a prison in Scotland.

In a letter to me dated 12 January 1994, Dr Legwell stated that he had consulted his clients, that this scheme was wholly acceptable to them and that if it were implemented by the government of the United Kingdom the suspects would voluntarily surrender themselves for trial before a tribunal so constituted.  By a letter of the same date, Deputy Foreign Minister Mousa Kousa stated that the Libyan government approved of the proposal and would place no obstacles in the path of its two citizens should they elect to submit to trial under this scheme.

[RB: Further information regarding Dr Legwell's involvement over the years in the case can be found in the blogposts collated here.]

Monday 31 July 2023

Sky and BBC to screen rival dramas on Lockerbie disaster

[What follows is excerpted from a report published yesterday on the Deadline website:]

A second major transatlantic drama series on the Lockerbie bombing terror attack is in the works — this time at the BBC and Netflix.

The British broadcaster and US streamer will co-produce Lockerbie, a factual drama that will explore the joint investigation into the 1988 disaster by Scottish and American authorities. (...)

Line of Duty producer World Productions is making the six-part series, which was initially developed by MGM Television and Night Train Media alongside filmmaker Adam Morane-Griffiths.

The BBC and Netflix commission comes more than a year after Sky and Peacock came together to greenlight a separate series, also titled Lockerbie. That project was meant to premiere this year but has been delayed amid continued development.

Jim Sheridan, the Oscar-nominated director of My Left Foot, and daughter Kirsten Sheridan are writing the Sky/Peacock series, which centers on a family’s search for justice. Carnival Films is producing.

Jonathan Lee, the novelist behind High Dive, is writing the BBC/Netflix drama alongside Gillian Roger Park (The Young Offenders), a Scottish screenwriter who will pen two episodes.

They will draw on extensive interviews done by Morane-Griffiths, who spoke to Scottish police and US investigative agencies. The series will also examine the bombing’s impact on the people of Lockerbie.

Michael Keillor (Best Interests) will direct. The executive producers are Simon Heath and Roderick Seligman for World; Steve Stark and Stacey Levin for Toluca Pictures; Adam Morane-Griffiths, Sara Curran,  Herbert L Kloiber, Keillor; and Gaynor Holmes for the BBC. The co-EP is Joe Hill. 

Netflix drama commissioner Mona Qureshi said: “The moment we read Jonathan’s pilot script, informed by Adam’s meticulous research, we understood that this team had found a way into these events that is epic and intimate, local and global, personal and political. The devastation wrought on the night of 21st December 1988 continues to reverberate through the decades.”

BBC commissioner Holmes added: “We have the right team in place to tell this extraordinary story with the greatest of care, making sure the series reflects the devastating events of that night, the complex and far-reaching investigation that followed and the effect it had on all those who lost loved ones.”  

[A report in today's edition of The Times contains the following:]

The six-part show will air on the BBC and Netflix more than 35 years after flight Pan Am 103 exploded over the small Scottish town in 1988, killing 270 people including 43 Britons.

Lockerbie will focus on the investigation into the crash, starting with the search for evidence on the ground in Scotland, before travelling to the US and Malta, where the bomb is thought to have been assembled. It will take in the trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted in the Netherlands in 2001 and jailed for life before being released on compassionate grounds three years before his death in Libya in 2012. The US indictment last year of the suspected bombmaker, Abu Agila Masud, will also feature.

Thursday 15 June 2023

Did Megrahi really admit that Fhimah put bomb suitcase on flight?

[Today's edition of the Daily Record contains an article about the letter written by Abdelbaset Megrahi in July 2003 to King Hussein of Jordan and delivered to him by Gaddafi aide Daad Sharab. The article contains the following:]

Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi’s adviser Daad Sharab, 61, visited Abdelbaset al-Megrahi three times in Scotland. She took a letter from Megrahi which he wrote to the King of Jordan in Barlinnie jail in a desperate bid to be freed.

Megrahi told how Nelson Mandela had visited him and supported his campaign for release. He claimed Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, the man cleared of the bombing when he faced trial alongside Megrahi in 2001, “put the suitcase on the flight”.

Megrahi wrote: “I have to write because of the great suffering condemned to imprisonment for false accusation. I am an Arabic Libyan unfairly convicted in the case of what is called Lockerbie. It was a false accusation based on the allegation I was the suspect who bought the clothes from a storekeeper in Malta.

“They were found in the remains of the suitcase bomb that was the cause for the plane crash over Lockerbie... my colleague, the second suspect who was acquitted by the court, is the one who put the suitcase on the flight from Malta.”

[RB: This remarkable allegation - that Megrahi admitted that his co-accused Lamin Fhimah put the suitcase containing the bomb on the Air Malta flight - does not match the translation of the relevant passage of the letter given on page 128 of Daad Sharab's book The Colonel And I: My Life With Gaddafi. The passage there reads (with emphasis added):

"I am an Arabic Libyan unfairly convicted in the case of what is called Lockerbie on a false accusation based on the allegation I was the suspect who bought the clothes from a storekeeper in Malta that were found in the remains of the suitcase bomb that was the cause for the plane crash over Lockerbie, and that I was available in Malta and that my colleague the second suspect who was acquitted by the court is the one who put the suitcase on the flight from Malta."

The Daily Record article contains a facsimile of the original Arabic version of Megrahi's letter, so those with a knowledge of the language can decide for themselves whether Megrahi was simply conveying the allegations made against himself and his co-accused, and whether the newspaper's version is grossly misleading.] 

Sunday 11 June 2023

Colonel Gaddafi knew Lockerbie bomber was innocent

[What follows is excerpted from a report published today on the Mirror newspaper website:]

A confidante of Colonel Gaddafi, who was assassinated in 2011 by Libyan rebel forces, said he allowed the Lockerbie bomber to be jailed for the attack despite knowing of his innocence

Colonel Gaddafi knew the Lockerbie bomber was innocent of mass murder but let him rot in prison in a political deal, his close adviser has said.

Daad Sharab, 61, was the Libyan dictator’s confidante for 22 years and visited Abdelbaset al-Megrahi three times in prison in Scotland.

The Libyan intelligence officer agreed to drop his appeal against his life sentence in return for his return to Libya on health grounds in 2009.

Now another former Libyan intelligence officer, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, 71, is to go on trial in the US over the attack.

He is accused of building the bomb that downed Pan Am flight 103 on December 21, 1988, killing all 259 on board and 11 people in Lockerbie. (...)

Sharab fears the trial will again implicate al-Megrahi. Speaking from her home in Jordan, Sharab said: “I believe that Megrahi was framed.

“He fulfilled his commitment to Gaddafi and went to trial even though he knew he was innocent.

“Gaddafi made a deal with the British then to lift sanctions.” Megrahi was jailed in 2001.

A Maltese shopkeeper testified he sold him clothing found in the case that held the bomb.

But writing to the King of Jordan in a letter Sharab delivered, al-Megrahi said: “I never in my life bought any clothes from any store in Malta.”

Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was a victim, said of al-Megrahi and a co-defendant: “I went into court thinking I was going to see the trial of those responsible for the murder.

“I came out thinking he had been framed.”

Gaddafi had Sharab imprisoned but she escaped, after 19 months, amid 2011’s Arab Spring uprising and went on to write The Colonel and I: My Life with Gaddafi.

Megrahi died aged 60 in 2012.

[The Daily Express has now picked up this story: Lockerbie bomber was framed by Colonel Gaddafi and took the fall for Pan Am atrocity.]

Thursday 1 June 2023

Further US court appearance for Lockerbie accused Masud

The court calendar of the US District Court for Washington DC indicates that a Status Conference in the case against Lockerbie accused Abu Ajila Masud took place (or at least was scheduled) yesterday, 31 May. The calendar states:

Case Number and Title - 22-cr-0392:  USA v. KHEIR AL-MARIMI

Judge - Judge Dabney L Friedrich

Time - 05/31/2023 09:00AM

Courtroom - Courtroom 14 In Person

Purpose - Status Conference

I can find no online media report on the proceedings at, or the outcome of, the court hearing.

Monday 22 May 2023

Lockerbie suspect Masud to appear again in US court on 31 May

[What follows is the text of a report published today on the website of The Libya Observer:]

The family of the Libyan citizen who is the suspect in the Lockerbie bombing case, Abu Agila Masud stated that the date of his trial session will be on May 31. [RB: I suspect, though I have no inside information, that this will simply be another procedural hearing. It would surprise me greatly if either the prosecution or the defence were yet in a position to go to trial.]

The family said in press statements that they hired a lawyer at their own expense, other than the one assigned, to follow up on the case to obtain information about the next court session.

The family expressed its dissatisfaction with the failure of the lawyer assigned by the Federal Court to follow up on the case, noting that they did not make any statement regarding his health condition and the extent to which the case had reached.

Regarding the promises made to the family to form a defense team, they said that they were unable to assign a defense team for Abu Agila, noting that all the promises given to them regarding the provision of the defense team’s funds were useless and untrue, considering it an evasion of responsibility.

The family expressed its disappointment with the Libyan state taking a “bystander” position regarding what is happening in the case of handing over a Libyan citizen to the American authorities without defending him.

[RB: What follows is excerpted from a report published today (Tuesday, 23 May) on the Libya Review website:]

The family of the Libyan intelligence operative suspected of making the bomb that blew up Pan Am flight 103, said that Abu Ajila’s Masoud will appear before the court on 31 May, without a defence team.

The family explained that they are “unable to afford the fees of the legal team. We hired a new lawyer, at our own expense, other than the one assigned to follow up the case, to obtain information about the next session.”

They expressed their dissatisfaction with the failure of the lawyer assigned by the Federal Court to follow up on the case. It pointed out that the lawyer “did not make any statement regarding his health condition and the extent of the case.”

Last month, the family said that his legal team withdrew from defending Abu Ajila Masoud for not paying the required financial dues.

Masoud, 71, is currently appearing before US courts without an attorney, his family confirms, noting that all parties that vowed to pay the costs of the legal team paid nothing and abandoned their pledges and promises.

Masoud’s family recently issued a statement denouncing the silence of the Government of National Unity (GNU), for not cooperating in knowing the fate of the Libyan citizen, as he is suffering from chronic disease.

The family said that the Libyan authorities did not assign a lawyer to defend Masoud or help them communicate with him. The Libyan Embassy in the US also didn’t show any support or intervene to help Masoud, the family says.

They appealed to the public to support him. “Masoud is a victim of political deals,” the family concluded.

Masoud has pleaded not guilty before the Federal Court in Washington. 

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Camp Zeist should stand as a warning for our justice system

[This is the headline over an article by me published in today's edition of The Herald. It can be read here. What follows is an expanded version of the article:]

The Scottish Government is promoting legislation that will permit rape cases to be tried, on a trial basis, without a jury. The only recent instance in which judges of the High Court of Justiciary have presided over a trial on indictment without a jury is the Lockerbie case. 

The conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in that trial in 2001 has been widely criticised. The late Ian Hamilton KC opined, with only slight exaggeration, "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted."  I myself commented "that a shameful miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated and that the Scottish criminal justice system has been gravely sullied." 

The official report by Professor Hans Köchler, a United Nations-appointed observer at the trial, contains the following:

"13. The Opinion of the Court is exclusively based on circumstantial evidence and on a series of highly problematic inferences. As to the undersigned's knowledge, there is not one single piece of material evidence linking the two accused to the crime. In such a context, the guilty verdict in regard to the first accused appears to be arbitrary, even irrational. This impression is enforced when one considers that the actual wording of the larger part of the Opinion of the Court points more into the direction of a 'not proven' verdict. The arbitrary aspect of the verdict is becoming even more obvious when one considers that the prosecution, at a rather late stage of the trial, decided to 'split' the accusation and to change the very essence of the indictment by renouncing the identification of the second accused as a member of Libyan intelligence so as to actually disengage him from the formerly alleged collusion with the first accused in the supposed perpetration of the crime. Some light is shed on this procedure by the otherwise totally incomprehensible 'not guilty' verdict in regard to the second accused.

"14. This leads the undersigned to the suspicion that political considerations may have been overriding a strictly judicial evaluation of the case and thus may have adversely affected the outcome of the trial. This may have a profound impact on the evaluation of the professional reputation and integrity of the panel of three Scottish judges. Seen from the final outcome, a certain coordination of the strategies of the prosecution, of the defense, and of the judges' considerations during the later period of the trial is not totally unlikely. This, however, − when actually proven − would have a devastating effect on the whole legal process of the Scottish Court in the Netherlands and on the legal quality of its findings.

"15. In the above context, the undersigned has reached the general conclusion that the outcome of the trial may well have been determined by political considerations and may to a considerable extent have been the result of more or less openly exercised influence from the part of actors outside the judicial framework − facts which are not compatible with the basic principle of the division of powers and with the independence of the judiciary, and which put in jeopardy the very rule of law and the confidence citizens must have in the legitimacy of state power and the functioning of the state's organs − whether on the traditional national level or in the framework of international justice as it is gradually being established through the United Nations Organization.

"16. On the basis of the above observations and evaluation, the undersigned has − to his great dismay − reached the conclusion that the trial, seen in its entirety, was not fair and was not conducted in an objective manner. Indeed, there are many more questions and doubts at the end of the trial than there were at its beginning. The trial has effectively created more confusion than clarity and no rational observer can make any statement on the complex subject matter 'beyond any reasonable doubt.' Irrespective of this regrettable outcome, the search for the truth must continue. This is the requirement of the rule of law and the right of the victims' families and of the international public."

The Lockerbie trial resulted in a conviction. But it also gravely besmirched the reputation of the Scottish criminal justice system. The proposal to institute, on a trial basis, non-jury courts in rape cases may well achieve the apparently desired objective of increasing convictions in such cases. But at what cost to the administration of justice and the reputation of the Scottish criminal justice system? Let the Lockerbie case stand as a warning.

Monday 17 April 2023

For 34 years the US has doggedly pushed a false narrative

[What follows is excerpted from an article published yesterday on The Intel Drop website:]

The greatest cover up since JFK – The Lockerbie bombing – might be coming apart at the seams, Martin Jay writes.

Like Afghanistan, Libya, a country rich in oil wealth and underpopulated, is heading towards being branded another major NATO f***-up as analysts worry that delayed elections, the hilarious farce of now having two rival prime ministers in office and an economy in freefall, could all point to rival factions returning to war. (...)

In early January, CIA chief William Burns has met with one of Libya’s rival prime ministers, the government in the country’s capital of Tripoli confirmed on January 12th, stirring some controversy, given how rare it is for CIA chief to do such a political stunt.

Libya, we should note, is a divided house. In Tripoli, its incumbent government – whose militias allow it to control important institutions like the central bank for example – is largely supported by the US and Turkey, while its eastern bloc, which is where its parliament is based, is controlled and funded by a number of Arab countries and Russia. (...)

But what on earth is the CIA chief doing in Tripoli?

Barely a month has passed since the US illegally extradited a Libyan intelligence officer, to keep a fake news campaign in the US alive which blames Libya for the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, and Burns rocks up to the Libyan capital.

The Tripoli-based government said CIA Director William Burns and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah discussed cooperation, economic and security issues. It also posted a hand-shaking photo of the two on one of its social media pages.

Burns’ visit followed the surprise extradition last month of a former Libyan intelligence officer accused of making the bomb that exploded on a commercial flight above Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing all onboard and 11 people on the ground.

In December, Washington announced that Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, wanted by the United States for his role in bringing down the New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 since 2020, was in their custody and would face trial. His handover by Dbeibah’s government raised questions of its legality inside Libya, which does not have a standing agreement on extradition with the United States. Dbeibah’s mandate remains highly contested after planned elections did not take place in late 2021. (...)

Given Biden’s moronic handling of US troops leaving Afghanistan, one has to ask, has he made an error in Libya which is worrying him now? The rendition of the Libyan officer is almost certainly illegal and it might have surprised Biden just how much international press coverage it received. Did Biden send Burns to give some moral support to the incumbent prime minister in Tripoli who refused to stand down when the eastern parliament attempted to install their own prime minister just recently? What was the deal struck between the CIA and Dbeibah and why did Burns need to actually visit him and pose with him for a Facebook photo stunt? Was this a signal to the eastern bloc that the US is going to stand firm with their man, if war breaks out again?

Add to that, that it is only a question of time before American families of the doomed Pan Am 103 flight which crashed in Lockerbie at Christmas 1988 will wake up and smell the coffee.

For 34 years, the US has doggedly pushed a false narrative which has blamed the Libyans. And they have succeeded to some extent, largely because the truth about Lockerbie is so incredible that few Americans would believe it, if they were to be presented with it.

Incredibly, Pan Am 103 was a ‘controlled flight’ by CIA agents which was carrying drugs placed on board by terrorist groups which Reagan needed to keep happy, while negotiating the freedom of US hostages in Beirut. Iran discovered this arrangement – as those groups in Lebanon were ideologically aligned to Tehran and later became Hezbollah – and decided to seek revenge for the US downing of Iranian airliner 655 in the Persian Gulf in July of 1988 by placing their own case on the flight, which they knew would not be examined by CIA officers, as it would be assumed to be drugs. The plotters even went as far as sacrificing one of the young men from the Lebanese group who was on board.

But the interesting detail of the Lockerbie bombing was the extent of how far the plotters went to divert blame to Libya, which the CIA are continuing to do to this day, in a nefarious game so as to extend the big lie of Lockerbie – all so that no US president can be held responsible for possibly the greatest cover-up since JFK.

If the American families today were to jointly begin a legal case of compensation against the US government for murdering their loved ones, who were used as cannon fodder for a twisted, idiotic game that Reagan was playing with terrorist groups in Lebanon, the sums would be staggering and unprecedented. The shock might be so much to the American public that it might create a crisis of confidence in the government and result in widespread insurgency, not to mention a lack of confidence in the US political system.