Friday, 19 August 2011

The Lockerbie bomber I know

[This is the headline over an article in today's edition of The Guardian. It reads in part:]

Two years ago Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was controversially released on the grounds he was about to die. But this shadowy figure has survived to become a pawn in the Libyan conflict. John Ashton, who has long believed in his innocence, describes the man behind the myth

It's an anniversary that the Scottish justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, will have long dreaded. Two years ago tomorrow MacAskill granted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, AKA "the Lockerbie bomber", compassionate release from the life sentence he was serving for the murder of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing. MacAskill had been advised that terminal cancer was likely to end the Libyan's life within the following three months: he had, in short, been "sent home to die". As Megrahi's recent appearance at a pro-Gaddafi rally reminded us, he has not stuck to the script.

The anniversary presents sections of the media with another opportunity to splutter its outrage at MacAskill's decision, and to resurrect the theory that it was driven by backroom deals rather than medical evidence. More seriously, for many of the relatives of the Lockerbie dead it adds an appalling insult to their already grievous injury.

But Megrahi's survival, and the Lockerbie case in general, now has far wider significance. For western governments struggling to justify why Libya should be singled out for enforced regime change, the issue has become a godsend. In recent weeks both Barack Obama and William Hague have tried to boost wilting public support for the war by highlighting Gaddafi's responsibility for the 1988 attack.

Libya's government-in-waiting, the National Transitional Council, has weighed in too. Its leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, claimed in February that Gaddafi personally ordered the bombing, and its London PR company, Bell-Pottinger, followed up Hague's comments by circulating a claim by a leading cancer specialist that MacAskill's decision was based on flawed medical advice. [RB: This claim is repeated in an article published today on the BBC News website.]

There is, though, another view that is shared by many who have scrutinised the Lockerbie case. They hold that the true scandal was not Megrahi's release, but his 2001 conviction. The Justice for Megrahi campaign, founded in 2008, counts among its signatories Dr Jim Swire and Rev John Mosey, each of whom lost a daughter in the bombing, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Another signatory, Scottish QC Ian Hamilton, last year blogged: "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted."

I go further than those lawyers: I am as certain as I can be that Megrahi is innocent. For three years until his return to Libya I worked as a researcher alongside his legal team and since then have been writing a book with him. I have read all his case files and have visited him many times, both in prison and in Tripoli. I'm one of a handful of people familiar with both the man and the evidence that convicted him.

It requires a book to explain all the flaws in that evidence. In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) granted Megrahi an appeal, having identified six possible grounds for overturning the conviction. Among these, remarkably, was that the original judgment, delivered by three Scottish judges at a specially constructed court in the Netherlands, was unreasonable. Four of the other grounds concerned the Crown's most important witness, a Maltese shopkeeper called Tony Gauci, in whose shop Megrahi allegedly bought the clothes that ended up in the same suitcase as the bomb. In 1991 he picked out Megrahi from a lineup of photos. The SCCRC discovered that before doing so he had expressed an interest in receiving a reward, and that after Megrahi's conviction the Scottish police secretly approached the US Department of Justice to secure a $2m payment. Gauci's evidence was, in any case, highly unreliable. His descriptions of the clothes purchaser all suggested the man was around 50 years old, 6ft tall and with dark skin, whereas Megrahi was 36, is 5ft 8in and has light skin. (...)

He was born in Tripoli in 1952, into poverty that was typical of the times in Libya. One of eight siblings, his family shared a house with two others, and his mother supplemented his father's customs officer's income by sewing for neighbours. As a young child he was plagued by chest problems, for which he received daily vitamin supplements at his Unesco-administered school. His main passion was football, which continues to absorb him.

After finishing school in 1970, he briefly trained as a marine engineer at Rumney Technical College in Cardiff, hoping to become a ship's captain or navigator. When his eyesight proved too poor, he dropped out and returned to Tripoli, where he trained as a flight dispatcher for the state-owned Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA). Having completed his training and gained his dispatcher's licence in the US, he was gradually promoted to head of operations at Tripoli airport. Keen to improve his education, he studied geography at the University of Benghazi. He came top in his year and was invited to join the teaching staff on the promise that he could study for a master's degree in climatology in the US. When the promise proved hollow, he opted to boost his salary by returning to LAA.

In 1986 he became a partner in a small company called ABH and was temporarily appointed LAA's head of airline security. The following year he became part-time coordinator of the Libyan Centre for Strategic Studies. His Scottish prosecutors aimed to prove that these roles were cover for his activities as a senior agent for the Libyan intelligence service, the JSO.

Megrahi maintains that his only involvement with the JSO came during his 12-month tenure as head of airline security when he was seconded to the organisation to oversee the training of some of its personnel for security positions within the airline. There is ample documentary evidence to support his claim that ABH was a legitimate trading company whose main business was the purchase of spares for LAA aircraft, often in breach of US sanctions. He admits that he sometimes travelled on a false passport, but insists that it was issued to give him cover for his sanctions-busting activities; unlike his true passport, it did not betray his airline background.

Megrahi says that it came as a complete surprise when, in November 1991, he and his former LAA colleague Lamin Fhimah were charged with the bombing (Fhimah was found not guilty). Megrahi also maintains that it was their decision to stand trial and that they were not ordered to by their government. He was repeatedly warned that he was unlikely to receive a fair trial, but believed he would be acquitted.

During his decade in prison his good manners and cooperative behaviour earned him the respect of the officers. (...)

He was cheered by visits from well-known figures, most notably Nelson Mandela, and by hundreds of letters of support. In 2005 he was transferred to a low-security wing of HMP Gateside in Greenock, where he was placed among long-term prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. He was soon accepted by both inmates and officers, one of whom volunteered to me: "We all know he didn't do it." (...)

We were optimistic that his appeal would succeed, but its progress was glacial. In autumn 2008, with the first hearing still six months away, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He had always dreamed of clearing his name and returning to his family, but eventually felt compelled to choose between the two. Although the compassionate release decision carried no legal preconditions, he knew that abandoning the appeal would smooth the process. No longer able to make his case in court, he asked me to write his story so he could make it to the public.

Writing the book required numerous visits to Tripoli, where he received me warmly in the home he shares with his wife and four sons in a middle-class suburb. His illness limited our sessions to a couple of hours. He would check every word I'd written for accuracy and was insistent that I include the case for both sides and not shy away from awkward facts. He repeatedly told me: "I understand that people will judge me with their hearts, but I ask them to please also judge me with their heads."

His reception, on his return to Tripoli, was portrayed as a triumphant official welcome, but, as a WikiLeaks cable revealed, the Libyan authorities limited the crowd to 200, with thousands of supporters and the international media kept away. A few months later the Sunday Times reported that, at the time he was convicted, he had $1.8m in a Swiss bank account. In fact the account had been dormant since 1993, when it had a balance of $23,000. This year the same paper reported a claim by NTC leader Abdel-Jalil that Megrahi had blackmailed Gaddafi to secure his release from prison "by threatening to expose the dictator's role" in the bombing. Had he done so he would have severely jeopardised both his chance of freedom and the safety of his family in Libya. Although he responded to such misreporting with a faint smile and a roll of the eyes, it hurt him deeply that anyone could believe him guilty of murder. (...)

When I last saw him, in September 2010, he visited me at my hotel. It was the only time I saw him among ordinary Libyans. Again we were repeatedly interrupted, this time by strangers thanking him, not for an act of terrorism, but for sacrificing his liberty for the good of the nation. His decision to stand trial helped free the country from UN sanctions that imposed 12 years of collective punishment on the assumption of his guilt. We now know that that assumption was based on evidence that was, at best, flimsy and, at worst, fabricated.

His appearance at the rally in a wheelchair probably won't silence the conspiracy theorists who claim he is living the life of Riley. The fact that he has made it this far is partly down to the superior medical care he receives. But I believe it's as much to do with his will to live and the knowledge that every day survived is a fragment of justice reclaimed.

[Today's edition of The Independent contains a report headlined Lockerbie release milestone nears which records the varying views of Lockerbie relatives and commentators on Megrahi and his release. There is a similar article in The Scotsman. An article in The Times, behind the paywall, contains, apart from reactions to Megrahi's release and survival, the latest information on the state of his health. An article on The Telegraph website attributes his survival to Abiraterone, a drug developed in the UK but not yet approved for use here. A letter from Rev Dr John Cameron supportive of the release decision appears in today's edition of The Herald.]


  1. Interesting article by John Ashton with significant new (previously unpublished) biographical data on Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

    Ashton says he hasn't seen Megrahi since September 2010. Where does that leave publication of Ashton's book, I wonder?

  2. John Ashton wrote: There is also a wealth of circumstantial evidence that suggests Lockerbie was the work of Iranian proxies, rather than Libya.

    The wealth of circumstantial evidence that Ashton refers to always seems to involve the ingestion at Frankfurt International Airport of the IED that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 at Lockerbie.

    Whereas, David Wolchover recently concluded: It will have become apparent from the analysis of the evidence before the court offered here that wherever the bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103 was built the Samsonite hardshell bag in which it was packed could not have come from Luqa as an anonymous item of baggage on KM180, or from Frankfurt on PA103A. It should have been as "plain as a pikestaff" that it was smuggled into the system at Heathrow.

    A perfect fit for the latest circumstantial evidence involving ingestion of the bomb at Heathrow is Lockerbie: Ayatollah's Vengeance Exacted by Botha's Regime.

  3. Wasn't the £2m on offer BEFORE Megrahi's conviction?

  4. There was a reward of $4 million widely publicised from about 1992 or 1993, available to anyone who could bring Megrahi or Fhimah to justice. It seems to have spawned a number of speculative accusations from people who hoped to benefit if their invented tales happened to match the facts well enough to be of use to the prosecution.

    The Gaucis were almost certainly aware of this. Whether any witness to fact who was traced by the police without them coming forward on their own account should be eligible for this sort of money is another question of course.

    In my opinion it was the prospect of that money which prevented Tony Gauci from saying honestly that he really didn't remember the purchaser well enough to be of any help to the court by 2000. That and the fact that the police had convinced him that Megrahi was the bomber, and they needed him to say he bought the clothes in order to get their just conviction.

  5. I have today twice removed a comment because of concerns about defamation. The tools available to me as "owner" of this blog do not allow me to edit comments. Removal is the only option open to me. It is an option that I dislike using and resort to only rarely.

    If comments that go beyond robust criticism and stray into the realms of defamation recur, I shall (with great regret) disable the blog's comment facility.

  6. Sorry, but I've had to delete the latest comment, too. If a person is still readily-identifiable, simply removing his name doesn't solve the defamation difficulty. It's the use of terms like "fraudulent" that's the problem.

  7. Having read these comments, I was going to come in and ask whether it is impossible in that poster's world that someone might simply be mistaken.

    Not really necessary now, though.

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  10. While I was already aware of it it was interesting that John Ashton confirmed that he worked for three years as a researcher for Megrahi's defence team. Couldn't they get somebody with a better grasp of reality - Patrick Haseldine perhaps?

    I have been struggling to find words to describe "The Maltese Double Cross" (on which Ashton was credited as researcher) and the rehash of this version of the "Drug Conspiracy Theory" "Cover-up of Convenience" which Ashton co-authored.

    Mr Ashton describes the evidence on which Megrahi's guilt was assumed as "based on evidence that was, at best, flimsy and, at worst, fabricated." The words pot and kettle occur.

  11. I am quite prepared to concede that somebody might be mistaken. For example in "The Maltese Double Cross" it was a mistake to stage a telephone conversation between the professional fabricator Oswald Le Winter and a man described in "Cover-up of Convenience" as an "anonymous witness" (both pretending to be CIA operatives) that "proved" Khalid Jafaar had a CIA escort onto flight PA103A at Frankfurt to his "keeper" on the plane Matthew Gannon.

    Perhaps the film's researcher should have found out Matthew Gannon wasn't on PA103A!

  12. Yes, it was a mistake. Elsewhere in the film, it is made absolutely clear that Matthew Gannon was not on the flight from Frankfurt. (Interview with Linda Forsyth, who checked Gannon in at Heathrow. It's incontrovertible.)

    The name of Jafaar's minder in Frankfurt was Ghannam, though as far as I know he didn't board the flight with him.

    It seems pretty clear that someone has become confused, and made an erroneous inference, probably because of the similarity between the two names. Sloppy, for sure. Fraudulent? No evidence at all.

  13. Couldn't they get somebody with a better grasp of reality - Patrick Haseldine perhaps?

    Go easy on the gratuitous compliments, baz!

  14. I have seen two versions of Linda Forsyth's interview - in one they are the Americans are together in another Gannon arrives seperately.
    However on the basis of some dodgy speculation Ashton claimed in "Cover-up of Convenience" that Jafaar and Gannon were sitting together. I'm not sure he hadn't grasped Gannon was not on PA103A.

    In the late Warren Howe's wildly inaccurate article in The Guardian he claimed Gannon flew from Malta to Frankfurt with his team of CIA men while McKee and a rival team flew from Larnace. (Was there anybody on the plane who wasn't a spook.

    I raised this matter with Francovich whose defence was passengers lists can be manipulated and/or who never said at which Airport Jafaar had a CIA escort onto the plane! (Kaitak, Narita perhaps?)

    The central point with the Maltese Double X (and Cover-up of Convenience) was that Oswald LeWinter was not CIA (or if he was the CIA were a forgiving lot as they had supposedly sacked him following his earlier "October Surprise" scam.) He was a notorious fabricator a convicted drug trafficker and was of course imprisoned for a post Maltese Double X scam. As far as I am aware only Ashton and Ferguson ever took him seriously despite acvknowledging "he had made a good living from duping journalists".

  15. ps Patrick I was serious - I think you do have a better grasp of reality that John Ashton.

  16. Thanks baz for the compliment (I think)!

    Answering the question "Does the United States have the right to extradite the convicted Lockerbie bomber?", John Ashton spoke well on‎ Jeremy Vine's BBC Radio 2 show yesterday (first 34 minutes on this 'listen again' link).

    Ashton mentioned revenge for Iran Air Flight 655 being shot down in the Persian Gulf by the US Navy as the most likely motive for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

    People who phoned in agreed that Iran and not Libya was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, and that Megrahi should never have been convicted in the first place.

    I have written extensively on Lockerbie over the past 22 years and have come to the conclusion that Iran and apartheid South Africa were jointly responsible (see Ayatollah's Vengeance Exacted by Botha's Regime).

    That's my grasp of reality, baz!