Saturday, 11 August 2012

Megrahi events 'a political fix'

[This is the headline over a report from The Press Association news agency on today’s keynote session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It reads as follows:]

The cancer which killed the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was a "gift from God" to establishments with something to hide, according to the Libyan's biographer.

John Ashton made the claim at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, joined by other high-profile critics of the controversial case.

Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, and Hans Kochler, the UN observer at the subsequent trial in the Netherlands, also took part before a capacity crowd.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was sentenced to life for the atrocity which claimed 270 lives above Lockerbie and on the ground at the town. He was released from prison on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, which eventually led to his death in May.

Mr Ashton, who recently published a book on the former Libyan intelligence officer, said: "Megrahi's cancer was a gift from God for everybody involved that had something to hide. It allowed his release, it allowed the final stages of the rapprochement between the UK and Libya, and it allowed the Scottish Government to allow him out of prison on a legal basis that wasn't one laid down by the hated government in Westminster. It was a tragedy for Megrahi but I think everybody else was punching the air."

The course of events was a "political fix", he told the audience at the venue in Charlotte Square. But he denied the trial was a "grand conspiracy" involving a range of security services and leading all the way to heads of state such as the US president. "What I say is, first and foremost, that the judges got it wrong, for whatever reason, and the Crown Office withheld evidence," he said. "I'm sure they did so in good faith but their behaviour was utterly incompetent and shameful."

The three men highlighted areas of evidence, heard under Scots law at Camp Zeist in Utrecht, which they said undermine the case against Megrahi. Key among them was a break-in at Heathrow Airport and discrepancies over the identification of Megrahi in a shop in Malta.

Dr Köchler said he cannot understand why Megrahi was found guilty but his alleged co-conspirator was not. "If such an argument, if such an opinion of court, was presented by a student in a seminar, he would not have passed because it is full of contradictions," he said. "They got it wrong. But the question is why?" He said the trial was politically motivated.

Mr Swire, an outspoken critic of the trial, believes a bomb was taken on board at London. "During the whole trial we did not know that Heathrow Airport had been broken into 16 hours before Lockerbie happened, it seemed to me very likely that was the technology that had been used," he said. "The whole concept that the thing came from Malta via Megrahi's luggage or anyone else's seemed to me far-fetched."

The panel's comments underlined the gulf between those who believe in Megrahi's guilt and those who feel he was innocent or the victim of a miscarriage of justice. American relatives in particular were angered by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to free Megrahi under compassionate release rules.


  1. A question on my mind throughout my interest in the case and that I was a little too shy to ask today at the Edinburgh Book Festival discussion is - do we think the UK Government would have been able to deny an inquest or inquiry if the Pan Am 103 bombing took place in the internet age? Would sites such as this and other forums have been able to "mobilize" the public into action, based on the fact that it just wouldn't be safe to take a flight until we knew how a bomb by-passed security checks at Heathrow?

  2. Hard to know. I think we sometimes overestimate the power of the internet to be honest.

    Of course, there's no such thing as an inquest in Scotland, and we had a Fatal Accident Inquiry. Which was a stitch-up. The calls for a Public Inquiry are happening now, in the internet age, and they're doing a good job of not listening.

    The realisation that the bomb had bypassed Heathrow security didn't really dawn on anyone much until 2000-01, and I don't know how many people realise it even today. Just months after the story of the "Bedford Suitcase" started to become public property, 9/11 happened, and that changed airport security anyway.

    Actually, I think that was the answer to Hans Kochler's point about how could a judge openly ridicule the prosecution case during the appeal, then completely wimp out and deny the appeal. 9/11 happened between these two things.

    The Scottish Government petition got over 1,000 signatures, which was a lot for one of these petitions, but compared to the population of the internet, or even Scotland, it's not such a big number really. A few people shouting in a confined space can seem louder than it really is.

    The power of the internet, to my mind, really lies in its ability to allow people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to dig into the nitty-gritty of the case to do so. How would I even have accessed the Opinion of the Court without it, never mind the shedloads of information out there? Thanks to the internet there are a number of people asking INFORMED questions, and that wouldn't have been possible in the pre-internet age.

    Today, I wanted to tell Magnus Linklater he was an idiot. Miscarriages of justice happen all the time, and they don't need a huge conspiracy of eminent people who know the defendant is innocent but conspire to convict him anyway. They just need the cops to latch on to the wrong person and then see guilt in everything they say and everything they do. Then confirmation bias and groupthink do the rest. Although there was a lot of politicking surrounding Lockerbie which added to the pressure, especially the determination of the authorities that SOMEONE had to be fingered for the atrocity, there's nothing fundamentally different about it.

    Ask the Maguire Seven.

  3. Totally agree on the last point - miscarriages theories are not born from conspiracy, it tends to be the other way around. On the main point, whether or not the theory about the bomb entering the chain at Heathrow was first raised in 2000 or before, what was known from 21.12.1988 was the bomb was loaded onto a plane at Heathrow and I would have thought that alone warranted deeper investigation to understand how that could happen - the question would be if other countries aren't bothered about screening luggage properly (as the prosecution/Government must believe), why aren't we doing more to protect our citizens or pressuring the other countries into adopting better procedures?

  4. It's a little more complicated than that.

    The explosion happened in AVE4041, which was the container that held the luggage from the Frankfurt flight. That was simply shuttled across the tarmac, and as it had been screened in Frankfurt should not have required further screening. That's quite logical.

    They found that part out within a few days, and I think it was an enormous relief to them. Phew, not Heathrow's fault. A press release was put out on 30th December 1988 saying the bomb had almost certainly not originated at Heathrow. The same day the baggage handler who actually loaded the luggage coming off the feeder flight was interviewed (the Scottish police wouldn't have had access to his statement when the press release was issued though), and I think that's the first they heard about there having been a few cases in the bottom of the container before the Frankfurt luggage was added.

    It looks as if they didn't want to go back and consider that it might have been Heathrow after all. They spent the next two years insisting the explosion was too high up in the container to have been one of the few Heathrow bags on the bottom. Of course, it wasn't too high at all. But they didn't really confront that until the trial, ten years later.

    It's not about "other countries". It was about Pan Am. Pan Am alone were responsible for screening that luggage. They were charging passengers a £5 surcharge for this special security service, then they just pocketed the money and didn't provide the security. It was Pan Am/Alert Security employees all the way down (Alert was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pan Am). And that applies to Heathrow and to Frankfurt equally.

    This is why Pan Am were held to be at fault at the FAI in 1991. Pan Am then lost a civil action for negligence in the USA in 1992. They were held to be culpable because (supposedly) their employee Kurt Maier had missed the bomb at Frankfurt. They tried to show that he didn't (which he didn't), but the court by this time didn't believe the cops would have issued indictments against Megrahi and Fhimah if the whole Malta thing was wrong.

    From the point of view of Pan Am, there was no percentage in pointing out that the bomb had gone on at Heathrow, even if they spotted it. Their heads were equally in the noose either way, as the culpable Heathrow security people were also their employees. And actually a damn sight worse at their jobs than Maier was.

    So Pan Am were held culpable, and had to pay out millions in damages to the relatives, and went bust as a result.

    Of course, the airport with the exemplary security that should have been an example to the rest of them was Malta. Go figure.

    But now, this is all history. The world has moved on post 9/11, and airport security is an entirely different ball game.