Sunday, 4 March 2012

Who was the Lockerbie bomber?

[This is the headline over a long review of John Ashton’s Megrahi: You are my Jury in the current issue of the Scottish Review of Books by Alan Taylor, the editor. The whole article merits close reading.  The following is a brief extract:]

It was because of his visits to Malta that Megrahi came to the attention of Scottish police. Items of clothing which were believed to have been wrapped around the fatal bomb were traced to a shop. As John Ashton puts it: ‘The Lockerbie investigation first tilted towards Malta on 22 May 1989, when RARDE [Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment] forensic scientist Dr Thomas Hayes examined a blue and white mass of fabric labelled PK/669, which had been found in Northumbria a week after the bombing. On untangling it, he discovered that it consisted mainly of a clothing label, which read “Age 12–18… height 86 com…75% modacrylic…25% polyester…Rib 100% acrylic…Keep away from fire…Made in Malta.” Two facts were clear: the item was heavily blast-damaged and it originated from a children’s garment. There was also a plastic tag in the label, suggesting it had never been worn.’

Hayes deduced that the garment had been placed very close to the bomb along with the other luggage in the hold of PA103. If it could be traced back to its owner the identity of the bomber might be revealed. After a few months, the manufacturer of the clothing was found, as, soon thereafter, was the shop, Mary’s House, in the Maltese town of Sliema in which it was sold. All that was needed now was for whoever sold it to identify who’d bought it.  To the jubilation of DCI Harry Bell and Detective Sergeant William Armstrong, Tony Gauci, the son of the owner of Mary’s House, said he had a vivid recollection of the transaction. It had stuck with him, he explained, because the man who bought it had also bought several other items, none of which took much persuasion for him to purchase. ‘It was as if anything I suggested he buy he would take it,’ said Gauci. 

But what did he look like? Gauci, whose job it was to assess someone’s measurements in an instant, barely hesitated. This is what he initially told the Scottish policemen. ‘He was about six feet or more in height. He had a big chest and a large head. He was well-built but he was not fat or with a big stomach. His hair was very black. He was speaking Libyan to me. I can tell the difference between Libyans and Tunisians when I speak to them for a while. Tunisians often start speaking French if you talk to them for a while. He was clean-shaven with no facial hair. He had dark-coloured skin. He was wearing a dark-coloured two piece suit. I think it may have been blue-coloured. His overall appearance was smart.’

Gauci, who would later be described by Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the former Lord Advocate as ‘not quite the full shilling’ and ‘an apple short of a picnic’, was for the police the witness of their dreams. Having provided them with a portrait of the suspect, they now tried to get him to specify a date. A time proved easier. It was not long before the shop closed at 7 pm, perhaps about half an hour before. Gauci said that he was alone because his brother Paul was watching football on TV elsewhere. He also recalled that the bill came to £76.50 which, he said, was paid in cash.

Over the following few weeks Gauci was interviewed numerous times. Then, on 26 September, Gauci informed the police that the mysterious stranger had been in the shop the previous day. Again he gave a description, confirming many of the details he’d given previously, but adding that the clothes buyer was around 50 years old when Megrahi was 36. He was also a few inches smaller than the man Gauci said he’d served, lighter skinned and with a receding hairline. Gauci said he hadn’t contacted the police immediately because his father and brother had warned him that ‘something bad’ might happen to him. (...)

It would be wrong to suggest that it was only Tony Gauci’s testimony which led to the conviction of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing. Equally it would be wrong to say that his conviction would have been obtained and upheld without it. Reading his statements to the police, which are included here as an appendix, what is instantly apparent is their unreliability. Taken together, remarks John Ashton, ‘they reveal a man with an unremarkable constellation of excusable human frailties: uncertainty, suggestibility, eagerness to please and, above all, inconsistency.’

For the police, however, and the prosecutors, and doubtless some politicians, Megrahi   was the perfect fit for a horrible crime. For a start, he was Libyan, and the bone American wanted to pick with that country still had plenty of meat on it. As an employee of LAA, an organization umbilically attached to Libya’s intelligence security service, he could come and go as he pleased. Moreover, as a flight dispatcher, he knew his way around airports, especially Malta’s, and aeroplanes.

But what’s missing is irrefutable evidence to tie him directly to the bombing on PA 103. Unlike other suspects, such as those attached to the PFLP-GC, a violent Palestinian splinter group founded by Ahmed Jibril, Megrahi had no track record as a terrorist, and there is nothing in his CV to link him with other terrorists. He did not know how to make bombs or set them to go off at the right moment. It’s possible that he could have been acting under the orders of Gadaffi and Bashiri but again there is no paper trail to follow or evidence to back this up. (...)

Certainly, Megrahi, who is said to be close to death (as he has been since his release from Greenock Prison in the autumn of 2009) is determined not  to point blame at anyone. All that concerns him, he says, as he waits in life’s departure lounge, is the pursuit of truth and justice. It is up to the readers of this book, he insists, to decide whether he is guilty or innocent. Some, surely, will be persuaded that he is innocent while others will be unable to see how three eminent judges could make such a terrible mistake. Still others may be inclined to opt for a not proven verdict. 

My inclination is to believe that he is an honest and sincere man caught up in a nightmare from which there is no possibility of awakening or ever forgetting what happened to those 270 homeward bound for the holidays.

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