The empty auditorium
On the subject of Lockerbie, we are not short of bar-room philosophers. When someone from the Sun phoned me last week for a quote, he assured me that, down at his local, most people were convinced that Megrahi should never have gone to prison. I told my new friend from the Murdoch empire that I was interested to hear it. I was tempted to add that if only his newspaper had supported the opinion of the boozing classes, the world would be a marginally fairer place.
But where (I have been asking myself for the last fortnight), were all these bar-room philosophers when the facts of the Lockerbie disaster were first examined? I put this question with the hindsight of one of the strangest experiences of my professional life.
In December 1990, close to the week of the second anniversary, I turned up one morning at a psychiatric hospital in Dumfries. Part of the grounds had been converted into a mini-village, with its own 400-seat auditorium, administrative block, media centre and restaurant. I reported to the media centre and was issued with a badge, a desk and a telephone. 'Where is everybody?', I asked. There was no one in this centre; only rows and rows of empty desks and a long corridor of empty cubicles, each reserved for some famous newspaper or broadcasting organisation. 'Oh, there's never anybody here,' the security man replied casually. 'We haven't bothered to connect most of the phones'. He suggested that I should put my feet up, have a smoke, and listen to an audio feed of the proceedings. It was, he assured me, warmer in here than in the room with the 400-seat auditorium.
I went to the room anyway. I was frisked at the door, emerging through a metal archway into a large, gloomy hall with a stage and municipal-green curtains, tightly drawn to exclude the little natural light. A third of the floor space had been penned off for bewigged counsel and their assistants – 28 of them. A team of three shorthand writers worked in 15-minute rotas. On the stage sat the impassive sheriff who was hearing the evidence. In the press benches, a handful of reporters.
But the auditorium was deserted. Not one of the 400 seats in the public benches was occupied. During a break I asked an official if this was unusual. He told me that the highest attendance had been 10, on one of the early days. There had been no one for weeks.
This was the fatal accident inquiry into Britain's worst peacetime atrocity, a terrorist crime which claimed 270 lives.
Only one person in this oppressively dim room was of more than passing interest. She sat incongruously in the pen reserved for the lawyers, but it was clear that she was not one of that lot. She was a woman in early middle age, beautiful, stylishly dressed. I observed that her concentration never wavered and that she never stopped writing; writing; writing.
I discovered that her name was Marina de Larracoechea, that she was 43 years old, Spanish, an interior designer, that her sister Nieves, four years her junior, had been a flight attendant on Pan Am flight 103, and that she was here to represent her sister, murdered at 39. Legal representation did not interest Marina. She had to be in this unfamiliar town in person, in the depth of winter, resting her head heaven knows where, week after week, listening, writing, head down, writing.
The airline's head of security – even for him there was no audience – gave evidence. I remember 22 years later that he spoke of 'bouncing off the walls in frustration' at his employer's lack of interest in his plans to improve the inadequate security. We did not know then about the Heathrow possibility. We knew very little. Megrahi was a free man. Tony Gauci was an obscure Maltese shopkeeper. Peter Fraser was just another of those jolly affable chaps at the Scottish bar, no one suspecting that he thought in such sophisticated imagery as a witness being an apple short of a picnic.
It was an inquiry taking place in the dark. Almost literally.
As she listened to the security man's evidence, Marina stepped up the pace of her ferocious note-taking. I didn't appreciate at the time the nature of this phenomenon; it took a while for my slow head to work it out. It was someone bearing witness. I hadn't seen the like of it before and I haven't seen the like of it since. It was a deeply impressive spectacle.
At every new turn in the Lockerbie saga, I wondered what had happened to Marina. Maybe it was all that bar-room philosophy – to say nothing of all that speaking for Scotland crap – which finally drove me to make inquiries. It seems she is still alive and living in New York. 'I don't care about work any more,' she said some years ago. 'I can't do it any more. Personally I don't think I will ever be able to get back to many things in my life. All the rest is very minor compared to the fact that she is not around any more'.
Marina rejected a £4m payoff offered to each of the families. She said the money meant nothing to her and that all she wanted was the truth.
Marina requested that Nieves' name should be excluded from the Lockerbie memorial because neither truth nor justice had prevailed. I don't know whether this request was respected.
Marina attended part of the trial in the Netherlands and left it convinced of Megrahi's innocence. She said at the time of his detention in Scotland: 'The fact that he is languishing in a Scottish prison is a source of great sadness to me and to many other relatives I have spoken to. He is nothing more than a scapegoat'.
Marina appealed to the Scottish judges to conduct an independent review of the evidence on the grounds that the full truth behind the bombing had been deliberately withheld. They rejected this request. She applied for permission to intervene and ask questions during the hearing of Megrahi's appeal. They rejected this application.
The most recent reference I have been able to source appeared in a Spanish newspaper at the beginning of last year. It was in the form of a personal statement.
Marina said: I have worked hard with dedication and sacrifice, especially for truth and justice, in the case of the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 where my sister Nieves was murdered, along with 269 other equally precious and irreplaceable lives. This carnage, politically induced, announced and expected, occurred on 21 December 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Others, mainly government officials, diplomats and big businessmen had precise prior knowledge that helped them to change their flights and save their lives. Silence reigns over this and other important aspects.
In the same statement, Marina pleaded for health to continue fighting with even more determination 'and a little good fortune to help us bear with dignity the enormous burden of these 22 years'.
Her dignity was never in doubt. I experienced it for myself that long-ago December day in the tightly-curtained room. I'm reading it again through the lines I've just quoted.
For 270 of those 400 vacant seats there was a victim. Yet it seems that the powerful have won. The powerful have kept their secrets. The powerful have always depended on the emptiness of the auditorium.
[Part 1 of Kenneth Roy’s article can be read here.]