Thursday, 16 April 2015

Intelligence concerns over Megrahi conviction

[What follows is the text of an article that appeared in Times Higher Education on this date in 2004. It is a predominantly (though not completely) accurate account of an interview with me:]

Despite the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for the Lockerbie bombing, Robert Black QC, who helped bring the case to trial, has doubts about the outcome, as he tells Adam James

Academics do not generally receive out-of-the blue telephone calls from disgruntled members of the UK and US intelligence services - unless they are Robert Black QC, professor of law at Edinburgh University.

The intelligence agents have been eager to discuss their concerns over the conviction of Libyan Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi in 2001 for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people. Black, who describes himself as "just a quiet wee professor of Scottish law", is convinced that al-Megrahi should never have been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison and has been in close contact with the Libyan's lawyers.

He says the intelligence staff who have contacted him have "powerful" new evidence linking the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 to the Iran-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC). Before the Libyan suspects entered the frame, Lockerbie investigators thought PFLP operatives were behind the bombing.

According to Black, there are "computer printouts" showing that Iran paid $11 million (£6 million) into the PFLP-GC's bank account on December 23 1988, two days after the flight was blown out of the sky. Black, himself from Lockerbie, says this new evidence was passed last year to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is expected to decide whether the case should return to court this summer. This, in turn, could lead to al-Megrahi being cleared.

Black thinks the information was handed over because intelligence agents thought al-Megrahi would be cleared without them having "to come out of the woodwork". "Their amazement (over the conviction) is almost as great as mine," he says.

Central to al-Megrahi's conviction in 2001 was the testimony of Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper in Malta. Gauci told a court sitting in the Netherlands that al-Megrahi, who worked in Malta for the Libyan state airline, "resembled a lot" a customer who had supposedly bought a T-shirt on December 7 1988, a fortnight before the bombing.

Among the wreckage of Pan Am 103 were remnants of such a T-shirt that had been in the suitcase containing the bomb. Al-Megrahi, prosecutors claimed, planted the bomb in the suitcase, which was loaded as unaccompanied baggage on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt and eventually ended up on the doomed flight to New York.

Black says he would have no doubts about the judges' decision if Gauci had been sure that al-Megrahi was the customer, but he said only that there was a resemblance and described the man as being 6ft tall and over 50 years old. "Al-Megrahi is 5ft 8in, and in 1988 was 36 years old," Black says.

The law professor now finds himself in an ironic situation because he played a key role in convincing Libya to agree to have al-Megrahi and his co-defendant, al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, who was acquitted, tried under Scottish law, arguing that this would guarantee a fair trial.

Despite the international media coverage given to the Lockerbie case - most recently during prime minister Tony Blair's much-vaunted meeting with Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi - Black's role in the affair has been kept under wraps. It began in 1993 when al-Megrahi and Fhimah were under house arrest in Libya, which had not authorised their extradition for trial in Scotland or the US, as was being demanded.

Black was approached by British engineering firms who believed the only way they could win lucrative contract work in Libya was if al-Megrahi's and Fhimah's lawyers - and the Libyan government - handed over the accused for trial.

To this end, Black sent the Libyan government a dossier that outlined Scottish law and the rights of the accused. Libya took Black's dossier seriously, and in 1993 - with travel costs paid by the British companies - Black flew to the Libyan capital, via Tunisia, to meet al-Megrahi's and Fhimah's lawyer.

Although Black was an authority on Scottish law, 95 per cent of his work until then had been as a civil lawyer. Overnight he was thrust into the middle of an international political stand-off involving the worst act of terrorism on British soil.

On arrival in Tunisia, Black was met by Libyan government officials and driven for five hours at breakneck speed to Tripoli. During his first meeting with Libyan officials, it became obvious they wanted to have a clear idea of whom they were dealing with.

"The first thing they wanted to find out was whether I was a British government stooge," Black recalls. After convincing them he was there as an independent expert on Scottish law, he proposed that a trial be held in the "neutral" Netherlands. There would be no jury, but three judges would rule and the court would adhere to Scottish judicial law. Libya accepted the proposal, but the US and UK governments refused outright.

Five years later, Black returned to Libya, which by this time was impatient and threatening to withdraw support for his proposal. This time Black met Gaddafi in the president's Bedouin tent. "At first, he was not friendly," Black recalls. "He would not look me in the eye. He just looked straight ahead, with his hands folded.

"But I made the point that the (Labour) government had been in office for under a year and that it was still finding its feet in foreign affairs - it was possible to detect signs that its position over Lockerbie might be more flexible than that of its Conservative predecessor."

Gaddafi agreed to accept the trial proposal for a further six months. Three months later, the UK and US governments accepted the no-jury Netherlands trial. Black, whose professional highlights before Lockerbie involved contractual law cases for hotel keepers, had masterminded a diplomatic coup.

But, despite his concerns over al-Megrahi's conviction, did he believe the Libyan government had been behind the bombing? "Absolutely not," he says.

"The Libyan government and its officials' view was always that they did not do it. Above all, they wanted closure to the Lockerbie affair so sanctions might be ended."

Black's outspoken views have brought him abusive emails from some relatives of Lockerbie victims. But his professional assessment is shared by no less a statesman than Nelson Mandela, who has visited al-Megrahi in Barlinnie prison in Glasgow.

Last month, leading Lockerbie campaigner Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, supported Black's view that al-Megrahi's conviction was unsound. For now, though, the case is in the hands of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.


  1. Not trying to belittle you at all there, are they?

  2. Friendly Law School colleagues did point that out at the time.