Saturday, 28 February 2015

"Will the trial bring out the truth? Is it really meant to?"

[What follows is taken from a long report headlined What really happened on Flight 103? which was published in The Guardian on this date in 2000:]

The Maid of the Seas had arrived in Heathrow at 12.10pm from San Francisco and had parked by Terminal 3. It was here that Jim MacQuarrie would take over from another pilot. The 55-year-old captain was an experienced pilot and a veteran of 10,910 flight hours, including 4,107 on a B-747.

While the security forces of an airport are responsible for checking passengers and their hand luggage for dangerous objects, it is the duty of each airline to examine luggage that is stored in the freight section. At Heathrow, suitcases are examined with X-rays - but only those that are checked in at the airport.

Since Flight 103 had officially begun its journey in Frankfurt, luggage originating from there was not checked again. The Boeing 727 that came from Frankfurt was parked at Position 16, directly next to the jumbo bound for New York. Workers unloaded the luggage container from the smaller jet and stored it in the belly of the Maid of the Seas.

About 30 tons of freight was placed in the fuselage of the jumbo and over 108 tons of highly flammable kerosene lapped around in its tanks. The flight now weighed 323 tons and there were 259 people on board. (...)

The people of Lockerbie managed the catastrophe with laudable skill. Although the most important water line was broken, the fire department was able to put out all the fires within seven and a half hours. It is a region where milk production is the primary industry and milk wagons were quickly filled with water and driven to the many burning pieces of wreckage.

The first corpses were brought to the town hall, but people then started bringing them to the hockey stadium because it was the only place large and cool enough to store so many bodies.

The county's police force, the smallest in Scotland, was quickly reinforced. Normally only four policemen worked in the Lockerbie region, but by Thursday morning there were 1,100 working alongside 1,000 other soldiers, firemen and volunteers. But even a force of this size could not prevent the first ghoulish sightseers from blocking the narrow country roads the next day.

At about 10am on the Thursday, two boys who were driving a tractor across a field on their father's farm near Tundergarth found both of the orange metal boxes containing the flight data.

Search teams would comb through much of the 2,190 square kilometres of the county with the help of helicopters, airplanes and even spy satellites. But they would be unable to locate the bodies of seven of the passengers, as well as about 10 per cent of the plane. (...)

In the summer of 1989, British investigators came on to a hot trail. Of 11,000 pieces of cloth found in the wreckage, several dozen scraps had carried traces of explosive. One of these fragments carried a label that said 'Malta Trading Company'. When Manfred Klink, a criminal investigator for Germany's BKA, learned about this, he checked documentation in Frankfurt and found a computer printout showing that a suitcase originating in Malta had been transferred to Flight 103. Then three officials from Scotland Yard, the FBI and the BKA travelled to Malta, found the firm that had manufactured the piece of clothing carrying the label and finally found out where it was sold: a boutique called Mary's House in the port of Sliema. Tony Gauci, owner of the shop, remembered a customer who had bought three pairs of pyjamas and a pair of checked brown trousers in late November, early December.
That customer stood out in Gauci's memory because he had paid so little attention to the size and prices of the garments. The man was of Arabic descent and, judging by his accent, probably a Libyan. (...)

In the summer of 1991, a man presented himself to US authorities and turned out to be a star witness, someone who might prove to be more useful than all of the chemical analyses and microscopic searches carried out so far. Abdel Madshid Jiacha was a former Libyan secret agent who had formerly been an assistant to the station chief of Libyan Arab Airlines at the Malta airport. He implicated two of his colleagues with the crime of Lockerbie - and he gave details. (...)

After months of questioning Jiacha, the FBI and Scotland Yard surprised the world's press with a totally new version of events. According to the new announcement, the attack on the Pan Am jumbo had been carried out by two Libyan secret agents: Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, born on 1 April 1952, and Amin Chalifa Fhimah, born on 4 April 1956.

Jiacha said he had observed these two men as they loaded the suitcase containing the bomb on to the plane in Malta that was bound for Frankfurt. He said his government had ordered the attack as revenge for the US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. Libya rejected all of the charges and refused to turn over the two accused men. In response, the UN placed several embargoes on Libya at the request of the US and Britain. All air traffic to and from Libya was forbidden, a blockade was put on Libyan assets held abroad and no Libyan exports were allowed to be received. Libya eventually said it was ready to turn over its two citizens, but only to a 'neutral' country.

Robert Black, a law professor at the University of Edinburgh, made a compromise proposal in 1994 that was long rejected by all sides but which was finally accepted after tensions between Libya and the rest of the world had cooled: a Scottish court would judge the two suspects, but the trial would take place in the Netherlands, the headquarters of the International Court of Justice. (...)

Eleven years after the mass murder of Lockerbie, a trial is set to take place that will be unique in the history of jurisprudence: Britain is organising and paying for a trial that will take place under Scottish law, but without a jury, on Dutch soil.

Libya turned over the suspects on 5 April last year: they are the sole suspects. No one is implicating the Gadaffi regime, even though the Scottish prosecutors themselves take it for granted that the two agents were working for their government. The defence has asked that the start of the trial be delayed until 3 May 2000.

And it is highly possible that the prosecutors will not be successful amid growing doubts about three weaknesses in the case.

The first involves the fragment of the timing device that was found in the wreckage of the plane and that led US authorities to suspect Libyan agents in the first place. The Swiss manufacturer of the device has since said that the device found at Lockerbie was not the type that he had delivered to Libya in the past. Furthermore, the FBI forensic researcher who first examined the fragment has since been fired - for falsifying laboratory data in high-profile cases.

The second weakness of the case involves the Malta connection. The boutique owner Tony Gauci has been questioned 16 times, but has never clearly identified the Libyan agent thought to have visited him. At the time of his alleged visit, the Libyan was 14 years younger than the man first described by Gauci. The boutique owner still maintains that Mohammed Abu Talb of the PFLP-GC is more likely to have been the man who visited his store.

The third and major weakness of the case appears to be the star witness. Jiacha moved to the US from Malta after the attack and offered help to the FBI in 1991. The FBI then took him into its witness protection programme and paid him a reward.

But several witnesses claim that he had already made contact with the US Embassy in Valletta, Malta in August 1988 - four months before the attack. At that point, he gave a detailed report of the activities of the Libyan secret service on Malta. It was only after considerable pressure from the defendants' lawyers that the US admitted that he had made contact with the CIA in 1988. This raises serious questions about the reliability of the witness who is the major connection between a purchase of clothing in Malta and the explosion in Lockerbie. (...)

Will the trial bring out the truth? Is it really meant to? What is certain is that the prosecution's case is inconsistent. For if both suspects were working as Libyan secret agents, as the prosecution maintains, then Gadaffi, as Libya's chief of state, must be implicated. 'This trial is meant to accomplish one thing: to bring the entire case to a close,' said one participant, who weighed his words very carefully. 'No one has any interest any longer in a public solution of the problem; neither Gadaffi nor the US. But all parties have to go through with this trial to save face. This is not about law but about politics - and it has been all along.'

1 comment:

  1. One can see elements in this of the bigging up of the Crown case that was going on throughout the 1990s. Giaka saw Megrahi and Fhimah putting the bomb suitcase on the plane? It's hard to know if this is just a journalist making stuff up based on a misunderstanding, but it's in line with the interviews Cannistraro was giving about how they had evidence starting in Libya and moving to Malta showing every detail of the manufacture of the bomb and how it was introduced into the baggage system. He was lying.

    The press is a potent weapon of propaganda. If journalists convince their readers that there is conclusive evidence of guilt, everyone has a preconceived notion of how the case is going to go. Including the judges, I imagine.