[This is the headline over a report published yesterday afternoon on the website of the Maltese newspaper The Independent. It reads in part:]
Malta should seek to clear its name over the Lockerbie bombing victims by seeking a revocation of the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man to have been found guilty of the attack, according to the father of one of the victims.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of the 270 people that died when Pan Am Flight 103 crashed over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, and Robert Forrester, the secretary of the Justice for Megrahi Committee, are in Malta in connection with the play The Lockerbie Bomber, which delves into the potential miscarriage of justice that followed.
On Friday, the two men met Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Foreign Minister George Vella to discuss the case, in a bid to persuade the Maltese government to seek a review of Mr al-Megrahi’s conviction.
Mr al-Megrahi was one of two people accused of being involved in the bombing; his co-accused, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, was acquitted by a Scottish court specially convened in Camp Zeist, a disused US Air Force base in The Netherlands, due to extradition issues.
The two men were employed with Libyan Arab Airlines – Mr Fhimah was the station manager at Luqa airport while Mr al-Megrahi was head of security – when the bombing took place. The aircraft had left Malta for Frankfurt on its flight to Detroit, with planned stopovers at London Heathrow and JFK Airport in New York. [RB: Air Malta’s flight KM 180 terminated at Frankfurt. The prosecution case was that an unaccompanied bag was offloaded from it onto feeder flight Pan Am 103A to Heathrow and then onto Pan Am 103 bound for JFK and Detroit.]
According to the prosecution, the bomb had been planted in Malta, a claim based on the discovery of Malta-made (...) clothing which was believed to have come from the same suitcase. The owner of the shop they were purchased from, Tony Gauci, proved to be a key witness, and he identified Mr al-Megrahi as a Libyan who had indiscriminately purchased (...) clothes from his shop a couple of weeks before the bombing took place.
Mr al-Megrahi was ultimately jailed for life in January 2001, and a first appeal was refused in 2002. In 2007, after he applied for a review of the case, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission granted him permission to appeal against his conviction due to evidence that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place.
But the appeal was withdrawn days before Mr al-Megrahi was granted a release from detention on compassionate grounds due to terminal prostate cancer. He returned to Tripoli, and while he outlived the three-month prognosis that led to his release, he ultimately died on May 2012.
Verdict ‘used to deny us the truth’
But many relatives of Lockerbie victims remain unconvinced about Mr al-Megrahi’s guilt, and Dr Swire, a retired family doctor from Windsor, has been their most prominent representative. His daughter, a medical student, was one day shy of her 24th birthday when she died: she was travelling to the US to spend Christmas with her American boyfriend.
At St James’ Cavalier, Dr Swire said that he had gone to the trial believing that he would see those who murdered his daughter brought to justice, but left feeling that Mr al-Megrahi was a scapegoat. He ultimately befriended the only man convicted of killing his daughter, convinced that the true perpetrators are yet to face justice.
Mr al-Megrahi may have died, but this has not stopped Dr Swire and the Justice for Megrahi group he co-founded from seeking to overturn his conviction, as the verdict has implications beyond the injustice they are convinced the Libyan had suffered.
“The verdict is used ruthlessly to deny us access to the truth,” Dr Swire maintains. And by doing so, he adds, the Scottish justice system was protecting the ones who actually did it.
He points out that a judge actually remarked that it was unfortunate that the prosecution had no evidence of how Mr al-Megrahi loaded the bomb in Malta.
“You bet it’s unfortunate, because he didn’t put it on a plane,” he adds.
Dr Swire maintains that the evidence pointed towards an attack by Iran, which swore revenge after a US missile cruiser – the USS Vincennes – shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf, in Iranian airspace, on 3 July 1988, killing all 290 civilians on board.
The likely perpetrators, he argues, are a Syria-based Palestinian militant organisation – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) – as the bomb used to down the Pan Am Flight was of a type they had developed. The PFLP-GC had initially been blamed for the attack, before the two Libyans were indicted.
Dr Swire, who had been taught how to use explosives when he served in the Royal Engineers, explains that the bomb used a mechanism triggered by a drop in air pressure, which would occur as the aircraft gained elevation. He insists that the crude timer utilised could not be set for longer than 30 minutes.
As a result, he maintains, it would have been impossible for the bomb to have been loaded at Luqa airport, since it would have gone off before the aircraft reached Frankfurt. The bomb could not even have been loaded in Frankfurt itself, he adds.
While Mr Forrester notes that the Justice for Megrahi group itself is solely concerned with clearing Mr al-Megrahi’s name – and not with finding who the perpetrators may be – he points out that the group is concerned at the way investigations were diverted from the PFLP-GC in favour of the “fantasy yellow-brick road to Tripoli”.
Dr Swire questions the reliability of Mr Gauci’s testimony, noting that he and his brother Paul clearly had expectations of a financial reward for their role. The SCCRC ultimately revealed, when it granted approval for a second appeal, that the US Department of Justice had been asked to pay Tony Gauci $2 million and his brother $1 million under the US government’s Rewards for Justice anti-terrorism programme, although the amount the brothers received could not be determined.
Mr al-Megrahi was found to possess multiple false passports, but Dr Swire insists that this was related to his job with the Libyan airline, noting that he also had to procure spare parts for the Boeing aircrafts the airline used – easier said than done given the economic sanctions imposed on Libya at the time.
Ultimately, Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi did agree to acknowledge responsibility for the attack, and even paid compensation to the victims’ families.
But Dr Swire insists that this was simply a political ploy to ensure that economic sanctions were lifted, noting that a repressive dictator would have needed an economy that was doing well to remain in power. He adds that he also evaded a direct admission of guilt, as his lawyers drafted a “clever” letter in which he claimed responsibility on the basis of the conviction of a Libyan citizen.
Nevertheless, Dr Swire does not rule out that Col Gaddafi or his regime was aware of – or even involved in – the bombing. He only categorically rules out the involvement of Mr al-Megrahi who, he points out, did not exactly act as a terrorist would when he visited Malta by choosing to stay at a hotel where he was well known.
Clearing Malta’s name
Dr Swire met Mr al-Megrahi for a final time in January 2012, and he notes that the Libyan man was keen to pass on documents to him after his death, in a bid to clear his family’s name. Given the situation in Libya, however, he is not keeping in touch with the family, fearing for their safety.
He points out that the SCCRC allows any parties who have a direct interest to seek a review of a court case: in this case, the list would include him as the relative of a victim, and Mr al-Megrahi’s family.
It would also include Malta, if it felt that its reputation was tarnished by being linked to the bombing, despite what Dr Swire describes to be one of the most secure airports on earth. In 1990, to prove airport security left much to be desired, Dr Swire took a fake bomb – with marzipan used as a substitute for Semtex – on a flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK, and subsequently from New York JFK to Boston.
Both Dr Swire and Mr Forrester said that it would be highly inappropriate for them to divulge details of their meeting with Dr Muscat and Dr Vella, but Mr Forrester did point out that the meeting was “absolutely superb” and very constructive. Dr Swire noted that they had been greeted in a friendly manner they were not accustomed to when meeting western politicians.
The tragedy’s 25th anniversary falls in December, and their campaign has not yet achieved any measurable success.
But both men are convinced that eventually it will, although Dr Swire, who is in his late seventies, wonders whether he will live to see it. But he notes that there are others, younger people, who are willing to continue the work they have started.