Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Justice remains elusive 25 years after Lockerbie

[This is the headline over an article by Alasdair Soussi published yesterday on the website of The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.  It reads as follows:]

If an individual is found guilty in a court of law, does that always render it case closed? In cases where murder is involved, developed legal systems across the world pride themselves on their ability to deliver justice, to bring closure, to bring at least a modicum of comfort to grieving relatives. Yet, no matter how established the judicial system, how respected its legal canons, miscarriages of justice are sadly not without precedent.

This month marked 25 years since Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in the skies above Lockerbie, Scotland – a terrorist atrocity that claimed the lives of all 259 passengers and crew and 11 others on the ground. For the victim’s families, the anniversary is a chance to remember loved ones who lost their lives on that terrible winter’s night of December 21, 1988, when one small Scottish border town – previously shrouded in sleepy obscurity – made international headlines. For others, it will be a chance to reflect on what many consider to be one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of the modern age.

Abdel Basset Ali Al Megrahi remains the only person to be convicted in the attack on the US-bound flight – but doubts about his conviction remain widespread. The Libyan himself proclaimed his innocence up until his last breath when, nearly three years after his compassionate release from a Scottish jail, he died from prostate cancer at his Tripoli home in May last year.
Scotland suffered a political backlash when its nationalist government decided to release Megrahi on the grounds that he only had three months to live. I had sympathy with the Scottish government’s decision.

The idea that Scotland could demonstrate its compassion in such a public manner to a dying man made me proud of my nation – but my doubts about the safety of his conviction led me, on balance, to believe that his release was warranted.

To be sure, my belief in his innocence is not without some reservations – the tangle of intrigues surrounding the Lockerbie affair are murky at best – but my own reading of the evidence has given me great pause to consider that the 2001 verdict was fatally flawed. In all likelihood it delivered that most serious of judicial errors: the condemnation of an innocent man.

The eyewitness testimony from Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci who said he sold Megrahi the clothes that were said to have been wrapped around the bomb, is highly suspect.

Eyewitness accounts are crucial to any case – but Gauci’s testimony was riddled with flaws. For a start, Gauci consistently told police that the clothes buyer was around 50 years old, 1.83m tall, heavily built and dark-skinned. At the time, Megrahi was 36 years old, 1.75m, relatively slender and light-skinned.

And, then there was his exposure to press reports about the case featuring Megrahi’s photo – particularly a magazine piece, which contained an image of the Libyan under the heading “Who planted the bomb?”

This magazine was given to Gauci by a neighbour and kept in his possession for several months, crucially only handing it over to police just days before he picked out Megrahi at an identity parade in the Netherlands in 1999.

And, what of the fragment of circuit board found at the crash site? Known as PT/35b, the fragment was linked to the bombing because it was identified as originating from an MST-13 timer manufactured by the Swiss firm Mebo. Megrahi had associations with the firm. Yet, the plating of PT/35b was pure tin, the Mebo timer’s circuit boards a tin-lead alloy. Experts consulted by the police had put forward the theory that the heat from the explosion could have vaporised the lead – sadly, Megrahi’s defence never did dispute the connection between the two items at trial – but this has since been disproved by experiments conducted by independent experts.

Doubts about Megrahi’s conviction are not just confined to laypersons like me.

In 2007, six grounds for believing that Megrahi’s conviction could have constituted a miscarriage of justice were published by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC). Among them was the SCCRC’s contention that the trial court’s judgement was unreasonable – specifically that there were no reasonable grounds to conclude that the clothes were purchased from Gauci’s shop in Malta on December 7, 1988, which was the only date that fitted with Megrahi’s presence on the island.

The other grounds for referral included undisclosed evidence to the defence about the Gauci identification (concerning his exposure to press articles on Megrahi before his picking him out at the identity parade), and, quite sensationally, other undisclosed evidence to the defence about Gauci’s interest in reward money.

I have very little interest in conspiracy theories surrounding Lockerbie, and my main interest has always been on the safety of Megrahi’s guilty verdict, and the strong desire to see a proper inquiry into a conviction that has done little to inspire public confidence.

For many who firmly believe in Megrahi’s guilt, the above points are nothing new – just a simple rehashing of old ground. But, for this writer, and more importantly those who have campaigned long and hard for justice, they are worthy, now more than ever, of reiteration.

Indeed, and perhaps just as tragically as the lives that were lost that cold December night, they only bolster the widespread belief that the wrong man was tried and convicted for a crime that was perpetrated over Scottish soil but that shook the entire world.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.

[Two further Lockerbie articles by Alasdair Soussi can be accessed here.]

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