[This is the title of a radio programme broadcast on this date in 2007 by Australia’s ABC Radio National. Dr Jim Swire, Professor Hans Köchler and I participated. What follows is a transcript of the programme:]
Keri Phillips: This is ABC Radio National. Keri Phillips here with Rear Vision.
Newsreader: In what could be one of the world's worst air disasters, a Pan Am jumbo jet has crashed into a small village in Southern Scotland.
Reporter: It hit a petrol station in the centre of the town of Lockerbie. Police say there are many casualties.
Man: We initially heard a rumbling over the hotel. We thought the roof was falling in, and then we heard a tremendous shudder on the ground, as though it was an earthquake.
Keri Phillips: Two hundred and seventy people died when Pan Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, a few nights before Christmas in 1988. Although sabotage was not immediately assumed, once the cause was identified as a bomb planted inside a cassette player, suspicions fell initially on a Syrian-backed group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command - the PFLP-GC, possibly acting for Iran, which had threatened revenge for the mistaken American downing of an Iran Air passenger plane a few months earlier. But by the time anyone was charged over Lockerbie, it was two Libyan men who were indicted in 1991. Negotiations between Libya and the US and the UK over how the trial would proceed took years, but finally in 2001, one of the men, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was found guilty of placing the suitcase containing the bomb on the plane and he is now serving a life sentence in a prison near Glasgow. Recently however, after mounting disquiet over the original finding, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has decided to refer Megrahi's case to the High Court, a step it takes in cases where it believes there may have been a miscarriage of justice.
Today on Rear Vision, we'll look at what happened at the original trial and hear from three men who are relieved that Megrahi will finally have a chance for a proper appeal against his conviction.
Robert Black, QC, is the former Professor Emeritus of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh. It was he who proposed that a non-jury trial under Scottish law be held at a neutral venue in the Netherlands.
Robert Black: Normally, trial for a major crime in Scotland like murder, would be before a single judge, sitting with a jury of 15 people. Now the Libyan defence team were not convinced that their clients could get a fair trial before an ordinary Scottish jury of 15 people. There had been so much advance publicity about the Lockerbie affair and much of that advance publicity simply assumed as true the government contentions about who was responsible for the atrocity, namely these two Libyan men, and it was in that context that I came up with the idea of having a trial under Scottish procedure, but without a jury. And also because they were worried about the physical safety of their citizens if they were tried in Scotland, I also suggested that perhaps the trial should be held in a neutral country, like the Netherlands. And so that was the basis upon which I put forward the original proposal, and the Libyan government and the Libyan defence team accepted that proposal within hours of my formally submitting it to them in writing.
But then there was a delay of about 4-1/2 years until the government of Britain and indeed the government of the United States consented to it, largely because they didn't want to be seen for public relations purposes, to be making any concessions to Libya. Libya was a rogue State, a pariah State, and the attitude of Britain and America that there had to be an ordinary trial either in Scotland or in the United States, simply meant that there never would be a trial at all. And eventually after a long time, I think Britain and America realised that.
Reporter: In Tripoli there was much ceremony when in front of 40 Libyan and Arab and South African diplomats, the two men were handed over to the UN's Chief Legal officer, Hans Korel. Wearing business suits and flashing victory signs, Megrahi and Fahima looked confident as they boarded the special UN flight to Holland.
Keri Phillips: Attention had switched to Libya after the first Gulf War, when, some suggest, Iran became an important Western ally. For those who'd lost loved ones, the beginning of the trial in 2000 was a relief, although some were mystified that the responsibility had been shifted from Iran to Libya. Jim Swire lost his 24 year old daughter, Flora, on Pan Am 103.
Jim Swire: We had had meetings with politicians in all sorts of different countries in Cairo and in Britain and Libya, including three visits to see Colonel Gaddafi himself, and once the indictments were issued, it was an extraordinary event, because we knew that up until that point the criminal investigation had been presuming that Iran was behind it, because she had the strong motive of having had her airbus shot down two months before by the Americans, and that the Syrian terrorist group had been the executives because they were known to have the technology that fitted perfectly for what had happened. That was the basis behind my thinking at the time. But we had been told also by a chap called Douglas Hogg who was No.2 to the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hird in Britain at the time, that there was no evidence against any nation other than Libya, and we knew that that statement simply wasn't true, and we couldn't find ourselves believing what we were told. So my position was that I needed the court case to confirm to me that what the politicians were telling me, which was that of course it was a Libyan job from beginning to end, what are you worrying about? I hoped that the court would confirm that. In fact, the court had exactly the opposite effect. I went into the court thinking these just be the guilty guys who blew up my poor daughter, and I came out of thinking Well these clearly were not the guys, so who the heck was it who did do it and why am I being mistakenly led to believe that these two were responsible when clearly they weren't.
Robert Black: Many outside observers, including myself, couldn't actually understand the reason for this shift in attitude, because I have seen the official minutes of the investigation into Lockerbie, and it is perfectly plain from those official minutes that the investigators at that time were convinced that they had the solution to Lockerbie, and it had nothing to do with Libya and it had everything to do with the PFLP-GC, the Palestinian group. But suddenly, and for no good reason that I can see, the focus of attention changed.
Keri Phillips: Robert Black, who'd continued to take a close interest in the case, says that during the trial the weakness of the evidence against Libya was revealed.
Robert Black: The evidence that was led by the prosecution was much as I think followers of the affair had anticipated. So there were no, I think, real surprises in the prosecution case. But what I think did come as a surprise to some people was how weak some of that evidence turned out to be, particularly the evidence linking Mr Megrahi with Malta, and with the purchase of the clothes which surrounded the bomb. Now these clothes were purchased, so the Crown contended, in a particular shop in Malta. And one of the main planks of the prosecution case against Megrahi was to establish that he was the person who had bought those clothes in that shop in Malta. I think it was partly the problem of the witness, the shopkeeper who actually sold the clothes. He never actually came out and positively said 'I identify Abdel Bassett Megrahi as the person who bought the clothes in my shop.' The most that he would say and the most that he ever said in the run-up to the trial, and in the trial itself, was that Megrahi resembled a lot the person who bought the clothes.
But he had also, in the past, given descriptions of the person who came into the shop and bought these clothes. And that description did not in any way tie up with the physical appearance of Megrahi. For example, in his first statement to the police, the shopkeeper said, 'The person who came into my shop and bought the clothes was over 6-feet tall and was more than 50 years of age'. Now Abdel Basset Megrahi at the relevant time was 36 years old, and was 5-feet 8-inches tall. This came out at the trial. The judges accepted that the shopkeeper effectively had identified Megrahi as the person who bought the clothes, which he never did. And as I say, most neutral, unbiased observers thought that that was an absolutely perverse decision by the judges on the evidence which had been led in court. If it had not been that the court wrongly, in my view, accepted that it had been established that Megrahi was the person who bought the clothes in Malta, there would have been no justification whatever for convicting him. There really wasn't any other significant evidence at all against Megrahi.
Keri Phillips: Today's program is revisiting the conviction of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, after a Scottish Judicial Commission has decided that there may have been a miscarriage of justice.
Reporter: After such an exhaustive trial the verdict in the case against the two Libyan men charged with blowing up Pan Am flight 103, was something of a surprise. Hopes were high but few people really expected a conviction. In the end though, the three Scottish judges agreed that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that one of them, Abdel Basset ali-Mohamed al-Megrahi was the man who planted the bomb.
Keri Phillips: Professor Black says that one of the other mysterious aspects of the case is that only one of the Libyans was found guilty.
Robert Black: This is very, very surprising, isn't it, because the basis of the Crown's case against the Libyans was that Megrahi was the brains behind the plot. The bag-carrier if you like was Fahima, the other accused. But the importance of Fahima in the Crown scenario, the Crown explanation of Lockerbie was that Fahima was the one who had the ability to get the case containing the bomb into the airline baggage handling system, because Fahima was the station chief of Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta, and he was the one, according to the Crown, who could arrange for the suitcase containing the bomb, to be transported as unaccompanied baggage from Malta to Frankfurt, then from Frankfurt to Heathrow and at Heathrow then to be laden on to Pan Am 103. So that was Fahima's role. He wasn't the brains, but he was a necessary instrument in getting this bomb into the airline baggage handling system as unaccompanied baggage.
Now when the trial court held that there was not actually sufficient evidence to show that Fahima had done any of these things, that left an enormous gap in the Crown case, because they now could not provide an explanation of how this suitcase containing the bomb actually got into the interline baggage transfer system at all, because if Fahima wasn't responsible for it, there was no other explanation. So many people thought it's absolutely amazing that the person who supposedly was the one who actually sent this piece of baggage on its fatal journey, once he's out of the picture, how on earth are you still able to convict the other man?
Keri Phillips: Professor Hans Köchler is a specialist in political and legal philosophy at the University of Innsbruck. He was appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to attend the trial as an observer for the United Nations.
Hans Köchler: In brief, the trial was in both phases, the trial itself, plus the first appeal from 2001 to 2002, both of the proceedings were not fair, there was a lot of political interference, and as I said, at the end of the appeal, I suspected a miscarriage of justice. That means specifically I was of the view that the person who was declared guilty may be the wrong person, that this man who was now sitting in a Scottish jail, may not be guilty as charged.
Keri Phillips: You said that there was political interference; can you spell out for us what kind of political interference there was?
Hans Köchler: To some extent one can spell it out. Of course most of this goes on behind the scenes, but as an observer who is alert to some extent, I noticed and I was the first to make it public, the presence of representatives of foreign governments in the court room interacting during court sessions with the Prosecution team and the Defence team respectively. The one country I refer to is the United States, the other country is Libya. It is totally irregular because that was a Scottish court, and there were two officials of the United States Department of Justice who interacted with the Prosecution team and there was one Libyan lawyer who officially was a kind of adviser of the Defence team, but in fact was a Libyan official. He's deceased by now and he of course interacted with the Defence team. There was absolutely no point if this is a Scottish court, why there should be people representing a foreign governmental interest, first of all sitting next to either Defence or Prosecution in the court room while the court is on session. And secondly, why during the session they should interact with the official actors of the trial. Both of these groups of people should have been placed together with us, the international observers, behind the bulletproof glass wall. That was the place where the observers of the United States Embassy and of the Libyan Embassy were also seated.
Jim Swire: What I do know is that were circumstances surrounding the trial which one can just credibly say may have misled the judges. And those are things like the fact that the body of the evidence was essentially obtained and offered up by intelligence services in the West, particularly of course the CIA and the FBI. And intelligence services are not known as seekers after truth. If they're doing their job properly they will be doing what they believe is in the interests of the country for which they work, and that may or may not coincide with the truth. I think that's fairly self-evident. So that's the first thing. The real powers behind the assembly of evidence were not uninvolved, objective-minded people, they were people who had a job to do, and I think that at Zeist we saw them doing it.
Another thing was that I felt very uncomfortable; there were members of the US State Department in court who appeared to me during the actual hearings to be coaching one or two of the witnesses, by giving the very slightest of nods to indicate that he should answer yes to that question during the proceedings. And to have powerful representatives of the accusing power present in full view of the witnesses and apparently acting in that way, was totally and utterly unacceptable I think. And I think in this context we should remember what the great Nelson Mandela said to us and had published just before President Clinton gave the go-ahead for the trial in the first place, Nelson Mandela went public and told everyone No one country should be complainant, prosecutor, and judge. But if you take the UK and the USA as acting as one entity in this issue, the UK and the USA were the complainants, the prosecutor and really they were the judges.
Robert Black: I think that consciously or subconsciously, these judges appreciated that if neither of the two Libyan accused were convicted in this trial, this would be an enormous embarrassment to the Prosecution system in Scotland. And the person in charge of the Prosecution system in Scotland is an officer called the Lord Advocate. Now the Lord Advocate is roughly like the Attorney-General in English and English-based legal systems, but in Scotland the Lord Advocate actually was a much more important figure in the legal system, even than Attorneys-General are in English and English-based legal systems, because he was actually at the very head of the criminal justice system. Not only was he the Prosecutor, he was also the person who nominated judges for appointment to the bench. Every judge in Scotland at the time of the Lockerbie trial had achieved his or her position on the bench through being nominated for appointment by the Lord Advocate. There are those and some of these people are in high positions in Libya, who think that there was overt political pressure placed upon the judges to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to the British and American governments over Lockerbie. I myself don't actually believe that the British government or the American government in any way tried to influence the judges to reach a politically acceptable decision. I really do believe that the reason for Lockerbie and what I am convinced was a perverse decision to convict Megrahi is to do with internal Scottish legal politics. It distresses me because I've been a part of the Scottish justice system now for 35 years as an advocate, as a part-time judge, as a teacher of law and procedure, and it actually came as a shock to me that something within the Scottish criminal justice system could go so badly wrong. I mean even the best-regulated system can make mistakes and we accept that, and that's why you've got appeal courts, to put these mistakes right. But Lockerbie was more than that. Lockerbie brought home to me as I don't think any other case could have done, that actually there is something wrong in the system. It's not just a one-off mistake, there was actually something (I hesitate to use the word, but I think it's justified) there was actually something rotten about the system. And as I say, as somebody who's been involved in that system in one capacity or another for 35 years, I found that personally very distressing.
Keri Phillips: Some, like Daniel Cohen, an American who lost his 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, in the explosion, remain convinced that Libya was responsible, but for Jim Swire:
Jim Swire: What I would like to come out of this is first and foremost no more delays; I think Megrahi should be sent home and his verdict should quashed. I as an individual think that he as an individual deserves that, a profuse apology and compensation and so on for what happened to him as a result of what I believe to have been a deeply flawed trial. But the other thing is, that will leave of course the world saying OK, well if those guys didn't do it, then who did? And trying to divine what the vibes are telling me that I pick up, I mean there are some very professional people involved in the run-up to the next appeal who quite rightly won't tell me things that professionally they shouldn't tell me. But I divine that there is now new evidence concerning the Lockerbie case, which will point us strongly in the correct direction, whatever that may be. I think it'll be Iran and Syria, but whatever that direction may turn out to be, I think incidentally it could also be Egypt, but that's another issue. But wherever it does point us, I think it will give us a helping hand towards discovering the truth, and all we've asked for over the past 18 years in this context is truth and justice, and so far I think we've had neither and I think that we will be asking very serious question about why we have been kept at arm's length and denied the truth for 18 years.
Robert Black: I know that people like Dr Jim Swire who have never been convinced of Megrahi's guilt, even after sitting through the whole of the trial and listening to all of the evidence, their view has been All right, we think an innocent man was convicted and we will fight to get him released. But I think their motivation was largely to the effect that until we get this miscarriage of justice rectified, there will always be a blockage in our path towards finding out the truth about Lockerbie, because every time we say to governments Hold an inquiry into what happened at Lockerbie, the government says We don't need to. We've had a trial and a man's been convicted. We know what happened at Lockerbie. Why are you asking for an inquiry? So to people like Jim Swire you've got to get the blockage caused by Megrahi's conviction removed, and then you can go back to government and say OK, now what reason can you come up with for not holding an inquiry into Lockerbie? And so I think that's part of Jim Swire's motivation, and I support him in that, but I honestly don't think that even if we have an inquiry, that will lead with any certainty to a conclusion as to who was responsible. It may point in certain directions but I personally now think too much time has passed and that we will never actually get an answer that beyond reasonable doubt convinces everyone this is what happened at Lockerbie.
Keri Phillips: And it may take a year before Megrahi's case will be heard in a Scottish appeal court.
If you'd like to find out more about this story, do go to the Rear Vision website. I've put a link to Professor Köchler's Lockerbie website there and you can find his reports to the UN, the court judgments and a lot of other articles on the trial.
Technical producer for today's Rear Vision is Jenny Parsonage. I'm Keri Phillips. 'Bye till next time.