For more than 20 years Norfolk man Martin Cadman has fought to uncover the true story behind his son Bill’s death in the Lockerbie disaster. Now Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted bomber, is dead - but in this interview published in the EDP in April, Mr Cadman and the author of a new book explain why they believe he was innocent.
As Martin Cadman prepared to leave a meeting at London’s US Embassy just over a year after his son’s death aboard Pan Am flight 103, a member of the American Presidential Commission drew him to one side. “Keep up the fight,” he said. “Your government and ours know exactly what happened but they are never going to tell.”
Since then he has kept fighting and today, more than 23 years after Bill Cadman and 269 other people were killed, Mr Cadman has a filing cabinet in the study of his Burnham Market home crammed with folders relating to the disaster and the subsequent investigation. Despite this dogged research, exactly what happened remains a mystery to him, though he has his suspicions. But one thing of which he is certain is that it did not involve Libya or Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man who was convicted for the Lockerbie bombing in January 2001 at a trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands, spent eight years in a Scottish prison and was released on compassionate grounds after his diagnosis with terminal prostate cancer.
Now comes the publication of a book, co-authored by Megrahi, that presents new evidence seemingly undermining what many considered an already flimsy case for is prosecution, and this strengthens Mr Cadman’s view that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice.
“I don’t think that Megrahi or Libya had anything to do with it,” he said. “He has been made a scapegoat.” The bulk of Megrahi: You are my Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence is written by John Ashton, a Brighton-based author who has studied the case for 18 years and worked as part of Megrahi’s defence team between 2006 and 2009. Italicised passages written by Megrahi in the first person are interspersed through Ashton’s detailed analysis of the bombing and its aftermath. The book draws from a long-suppressed 800-page report by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), which was compiled in 2007 and would have featured in Megrahi’s second appeal against his conviction – but as is well known, he dropped his appeal and accepted a quicker release on compassionate grounds while remaining tainted with guilt as the convicted bomber.
Three major points emerge from the report and Mr Ashton’s own research. First, the most significant new evidence concerns the Toshiba cassette player that is believed to have been converted into an explosive device and stowed within a brown Samsonite suitcase in the luggage hold. This device featured a timer supposedly identical to those known to have been purchased by Libya from a company called Mebo, which purchased its circuit boards from a German firm called Thuring.
Mr Ashton said: “This is something that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission miss, and it relates to the forensics. The crucial forensic item in the case that really ties Megrahi and Libya in was this fragment of circuit board. We can demonstrate forensically that the prosecution claim that this originated from a timing device that was supplied to Libya is not true, because in the circuit boards in those timing devices, the copper circuitry was coated with an alloy of tin and lead. The Lockerbie one was coated with pure tin, which requires a completely different manufacturing process, and one that was not used by Thuring, the company that supplied those circuit boards.”
The second point concerns the Crown’s most important witness, a Maltese shopkeeper named Tony Gauci who, two months before the bombing, sold a man some clothes that were later used to wrap the tape-recorder bomb within the suitcase. In Mr Ashton’s words, Gauci’s initial “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”.
But in 1991, Gauci identified Megrahi as the man who entered his shop, selecting him from a line-up of photographs, and in 1999, he picked Megrahi out again, this time in person. “Before picking him out of the identity parade it turns out he’d had a magazine that featured Megrahi’s photo for months, so he would have been familiar with him. He’d had other newspaper and magazine articles as well, it turned out.”
The SCCRC report also established that he only gave evidence after asking for a $2m reward, and that the Scottish police persuaded the US Department of Justice to pay this sum, along with $1m for his brother, Paul. This fact was not disclosed to the defence during the trial, and would have been of great value as they sought to cast aspersions on the quality of Gauci’s evidence.
So if Mr Cadman, Mr Ashton and Megrahi are correct, who really was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing? Herein lies the third major aspect of the book’s case.
In July 1988, an American warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iran Air flight 655 from Bandar Abbas to Dubai as it flew over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 passengers.
“This Iranian airbus was taking people to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca,” said Mr Cadman, aged 87. “We never got an answer from the Americans as to why they shot down an innocent airbus.”
Instead of issuing an explanation or apology for the loss of innocent lives, the Ronald Reagan administration gave the USS Vincennes crew the Combat Action Ribbon. Five months after this attack, on December 21, 1988, came the Lockerbie bombing.
“It was a revenge thing, probably – Iran saying ‘we’re going to have the same number of yours as you killed of ours’,” said Mr Cadman. The investigators’ initial suspicion was indeed directed at Iran – specifically an Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). This group had splintered from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and had already massacred civilians in Israel and Europe. In particular, the focus was on one man, Mohammed Abu Talb, who was given a life sentence in 1989 for attacks on Jewish targets. He is believed to have been freed from prison in 2009, shortly after Megrahi.
Mr Ashton said: “The key things about this group are: one, they built bombs into Toshiba radio cassette players; two, they built bombs that were designed to blow up aircraft; and three, the cell was based in West Germany, which is where the flight began its journey. There was a feeder flight called Pan Am 103A, and the flight that exploded was Pan Am flight 103.
“Although some of the group were rounded up two months before Lockerbie, some of their bombs went missing and some of the personnel were not rounded up. There was a warning issued in December 1988... The State Department circulated a warning which said that a group of Palestinian militants were heading to Europe and were planning to target Pan Am.” Mr Ashton said that that warning’s existence was not revealed until seven years after the Lockerbie disaster. He added: “So those things combine to make me think they did it – and Iran, of course, had the motive.”
Bill Cadman and his girlfriend were among 259 people to have died in the aeroplane on December 21, 1988, along with 11 more at the crash site in the small Scottish town of Lockerbie. Bill was 32 and building a successful career as a sound engineer responsible for the audio quality at West End musicals such as Les Miserables. He and his girlfriend were en route to America for Christmas. “They shouldn’t have been on the flight,” said Mr Cadman. “I think my son was trying to buy the tickets last minute, and he hadn’t got the money, but his girlfriend produced the money, otherwise they wouldn’t have been on the flight.”
Over the years he and his wife Rita, who now lives in a care home in Fakenham, had the support of a number of politicians such as Henry Bellingham, the Conservative MP for North-West Norfolk, and Tam Dalyell, the former Labour member for Linlithgow.
Both politicians had great respect for Mr Cadman – as does Mr Ashton. “I’ve dealt with Martin, he’s a very good man,” he said. “He’s been very dogged over the years. He deserves better than he’s got, all the relatives do. It’s only with the help of people like him that we keep all this on the agenda.”
Mr Ashton’s hope is that this book will result in a public inquiry in Scotland. “I think the chances of getting the people who really did it are very slight. The best we can hope for is a full inquiry. At the very least it needs to look into why all this evidence was withheld, but what we really need is the full inquiry which will answer the questions of Martin and others, which are: why were the warnings ignored, and what happened within the investigation that led to the PFLP-GC and Iran being dropped as suspects. And, on top of that, we need to get Megrahi’s case back to the appeal court. There is a mechanism for doing that – an application could be made to the SCCRC, and his family are being encouraged to do that.”
However, he is sure that Megrahi will not live to see this happen. When Megrahi returned home to Libya to die, his arrival prompted scenes of joy that disgusted many Britons and Americans, not least the many victims’ relatives who believe that he is a murderer.
Megrahi’s heroic status in his home country, however, owed nothing to the idea that he had struck a murderous blow against an American airliner; instead he is seen as an innocent man who sacrificed his liberty for the sake of the nation’s economy. In 2003, Muammar Gadaffi accepted Libyan responsibility for the atrocity and paid compensation to the victims’ families in order to have crippling sanctions lifted – and at the same time let it be known that he was doing so as an economic tactic rather than a true acceptance of guilt.
Megrahi describes his release from prison in the book: “The decision provoked a carnival of political pointscoring, which kept the issue at the top of the news agenda for over a fortnight. The controversy was entirely founded on the assumption that I was the Lockerbie bomber. Very little of the media and political comment acknowledged that I had had an appeal pending and that the SCCRC considered the original verdict was ‘at least arguably one which no reasonable court, properly directed, could have returned’.”
Mr Cadman does not know whether he will see someone else convicted for his son’s murder. He is sure of one thing, however, after that conversation at the embassy.
“I remember that he said ‘There are some things that you will hear about that are right, but you won’t hear all of it. And no one here is going to tell you everything.’ And that is rather frightening. There are these few people who are in the know, and the rest of us who are not.”
Megrahi: You are my Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence, by John Ashton, is published by Birlinn at £14.99.