Even without the events of December 21, 1988, they would be the most unlikely of friends. Jim Swire, an Eton and Cambridge-educated doctor from Bromsgrove, and Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a former member of the Libyan security services who was convicted of murdering 270 people when a bomb exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew over Lockerbie.
Swire’s daughter, Flora, was one of the passengers. She would have turned 24 the next day.
Last month, Flora’s father travelled to Tripoli for a meeting with the terminally ill Megrahi, who was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds. It was a remarkable journey for a 75-year-old man to make, not least because Swire undertook it in order to bid farewell to the man he now describes as his friend.
The pair have met on a number of occasions – once in prison in Scotland and twice in Libya – but Swire is sure their encounter in December was their last. “It was, a privilege to be allowed, essentially, to say goodbye to him,” Swire told an ITV camera crew who filmed part of his visit to Libya. He tells me he is “proud” to have known the man he calls Basset, the man so many others know as the Lockerbie bomber. “Megrahi is dying, and as a doctor I wanted to find out whether he has got the necessary painkillers.”
He has, but Swire cannot say how long the convicted terrorist might live. “He is a very sick man. He only talks in short sentences with pauses to get his breath back. He is looking death in the face, and he knows it.”
Swire speaks affectionately of the Libyan’s wife, Aisha, always by her husband’s side, holding his hand; he is almost jovial when speaking about Megrahi’s love of football. “I think that was the thing that endeared him to the other prisoners. He was popular prisoner and, although he lived a different sort of life from his fellow inmates, he did muck in with them.”
At the end of his meeting Swire, a Christian, was so moved he found one of only two churches in Tripoli, where he prayed for Megrahi.
Such gentle compassion for the man convicted of murdering his daughter is incredible, and Swire is aware that many might find it astonishing. But the simple fact of the matter in this most complex of cases is this: Swire does not believe Megrahi is guilty. Indeed, if anyone feels guilt then it is Swire himself, who once met Gaddafi to pressure the late Libyan leader into handing over Megrahi to stand trial. (...)
Swire does not seem to have the same sense of mercy towards Gaddafi, who went to his grave with his secrets. “I am totally satisfied, that he [Megrahi] had nothing to do with it. But that is very different to saying that Gaddafi had nothing to do with it.”
It was during the 2001 trial that Swire started to doubt Megrahi’s guilt. While Libya and Syria may have been involved, he believes Iran was ultimately responsible for Lockerbie, as revenge for the shooting down of an Iranair flight by the Americans.
It was in the early hours of Flora’s 24th birthday that the Swires received a phone call confirming their daughter was dead. “It never occurred to me that I would be trying to get justice for Flora 23 years later. I thought there would be an international investigation and the truth would come out in a year or two,” Swire says. He has lobbied five Prime Ministers for a public inquiry, all of whom seem to have fobbed the families off; and at least two of whom, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were pictured cosying up to Gaddafi.
The Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission found in 2007 the Lockerbie verdict may have been a miscarriage of justice; Swire still hopes for a proper inquiry.