Monday, 21 May 2012

... the Scottish Government should agree to a public inquiry

[An editorial in today's edition of The Independent reads as follows:]

The death of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in Tripoli yesterday is a closure of sorts, but only of the diplomatic fracas that accompanied his release from prison in Scotland in 2009. It brings us no closer to solving the mystery of who was responsible for the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. Nor does it offer any resolution to the families of the 270 people who died.

Megrahi was released, after serving eight-and-a-half years of his 27-year sentence, because he had terminal prostate cancer and was judged to have only three months to live. But when he received a hero's welcome from Colonel Gaddafi on his arrival in Libya – and then proceeded to long outlive his Scottish doctors' pessimistic prognoses – his release provoked a major diplomatic incident.

The response in Scotland was mixed, less on the question of whether to be merciful to a dying man than because of doubts as to the validity of the conviction in the first place. In the US, however, there was widespread hostility and the release was widely denounced, not least by President Obama. As the stand-off continued, the allegations grew ever murkier, including claims that Westminster pressed for the deal to protect Britain's trading relationship with Libya. And there were also hints that the release was linked to Megrahi's last-minute decision to drop his appeal.

With his death, the diplomatic embarrassment, at least, is over. 

But there is unfinished business still. Megrahi's abandoned appeal followed a three-year Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission investigation that set out six different grounds upon which there might have been a miscarriage of justice, as he had always claimed. Several of the families of Lockerbie victims also believe in his innocence, and the representative of the families of some of the British victims described him yesterday as "the 271st victim". With so many loose ends remaining and so many questions about the original trial unresolved, the Scottish Government should agree to a public inquiry into the tragedy. Mr Megrahi's death is no reason to stop trying to get to the truth.

[The same newspaper contains an article by Robert Fisk which reads in part:]

Identification – based on a photo of the "guilty" man which the court was not told about – was always a pretty dodgy piece of evidence upon which to convict Megrahi, even without the later revelation that the CIA were paying out cash and contaminating the integrity of a witness.

No, Megrahi's lawyers were preparing a file that delved into piles of German interrogations of young men who may really have planted the bomb on a flight from Frankfurt to connect with Pan Am 103 at Heathrow.

The Germans had gone a long way to establishing that a Lebanese killed in the airliner was driven to Frankfurt by unknown Lebanese militants, and that the bag containing the bomb was actually put on the baggage carousel for checking in by the passenger's Lebanese handler – who had been looking after him in Germany.

I've gone through these files and I long ago concluded that they were devastating. There was a Lebanese connection – probably a Palestinian one, too. And there was a press conference in Beirut held by Ahmed Jibril, head of the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command in which Jibril (born Palestine 1938), suddenly blurted out – without ever having been accused of the atrocity – the imperishable words: "I'm not responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. They are trying to get me with a kangaroo court." Of course, there was no court, not then, just a bunch of pseudo-diplomats and journalists with too many "intelligence connections", who were fingering Syria for the Lockerbie crime.

Eventually, of course, all sides did well when the Scots decided that poor old Megrahi was going to kick the bucket within six months and might as well go home. To the mystification of his lawyers, Megrahi had forgone a judicial inquiry into his case in order to go back to Tripoli – and, as we now know, our Government was all too happy to see him off.

Wikileaks disclosed that British oil companies were more than keen to see the dying man shipped back to Tripoli to save their newly-acquired interests in Libya. The Americans were enraged – but not as enraged as they might have been if Megrahi's lawyers had been given the chance to tear the whole Lockerbie trial to bits.

[On the website of The Spectator is an article by Alex Massie headlined The Lockerbie affair is not over. It contains the following:]

Megrahi's cancer proved unusually convenient. I don't know if there was some kind of "understanding" that his prospects for release on compassionate grounds would be boosted if he dropped his appeal against his conviction. I do suspect that it was useful for all parties that his appeal was dropped. 

Despite what the Prime Minister says, Megrahi's guilt is not certain. As Ian Smart suggests there is little consensus even amongst those best informed about the case. This was not a "slam-dunk" case. Far from it. The evidence for guilt or innocence is a close-run thing whichever side of the argument you choose to take. Moreoever, it is possible to be convinced the Libyans were responsible for Lockerbie while also suspecting that the evidence against them was only barely strong enough to secure a conviction. Indeed the layman might reasonably conclude that if ever a case made an argument for the Not Proven verdict, Lockerbie is that case. 

Even so, one should not assume that the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission's report would have led to Megrahi's conviction being overturned. This too makes Megrahi's cancer as unfortunate as it may have been darkly convenient. Though Lockerbie is still, as the First Minister pointed out yesterday, a live case the prospects of getting a fully persuasive resolution to the bombing of Pan-Am 103 seem pretty bleak.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Fisk writes "the bag containing the bomb was actually put on the baggage carousel for checking in by the passenger's Lebanese handler". This of course could just be a friend giving him a hand with his suitcase except of course you don't have a baggage carousel at check-in. This is just a further slur on the memory of one of the victims.

    This article must be of great interest to David Wolchover. Self-evidently this minder must have been Abu Elias!