[This is the headline over an article by John Ashton published in today’s edition of the Sunday Herald. It reads as follows:]
Fifteen years ago, three Scottish law lords found Abdelbaset al-Megrahi guilty of the Lockerbie bombing. For many observers, including the majority of the relatives of the attack’s 270 victims, it was an unsatisfactory verdict. Megrahi’s co-accused, Lamin Fhimah, had been acquitted and there seemed little prospect of Megrahi’s alleged Libyan superiors being brought to trial.
For others, myself included, it was unsatisfactory for another reason –– the case against Megrahi was simply not credible. It relied on the claim that he had bought the clothes that were packed into the bomb suitcase from a shop in Malta. The shopkeeper consistently described a clothes buyer who looked nothing like Megrahi, and the evidence suggested that the purchase took place when he was not on the island.
In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case back to the appeal court on no fewer than six grounds, among them that the trial court’s judgment was unreasonable. The terminally ill Megrahi abandoned the appeal two years later in order to aid his application for compassionate release, but the prosecution’s narrative has been on a life-support machine ever since.
Now it has been breathed new life by a three-part documentary for the US Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline series. Trailed by a lengthy article in The New Yorker, the film suggests that Megrahi was, after all, involved in the bombing as an accomplice to a man called Abu Agila Mas’ud. I was a paid consultant during the early stages of the film’s production, but I disagree with its conclusions.
It reveals that Mas’ud was named by a German judge as the technician responsible for the bomb that destroyed the La Belle nightclub in Berlin two-and-a-half-years before Lockerbie, killing three people, including two American servicemen. That attack prompted US air raids on Libya ten days later, for which Lockerbie was supposedly revenge.
Megrahi was on the same flight as Mas’ud on at least three occasions prior to Lockerbie, including on the morning of the bombing when they flew from Malta to Libya. It was in Malta that Megrahi was alleged to have put the bomb onto an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, which was supposedly transferred to a feeder flight to Heathrow and again at Heathrow to Pan Am 103. Megrahi and numerous other Libyan witnesses denied knowing Mas’ud, but the film suggests that Mas'ud was in the car that greeted Megrahi on his return to Libya. Earlier this year a Libyan court convicted Mas’ud of making booby-trapped car bombs during the country’s 2011 revolution.
So far, so convincing. Clearly there is a prima facie case against Mas’ud, just as there was against Megrahi. Now that his whereabouts are known, we must hope that he can be brought to trial and the new evidence tested in a Scottish court.
However, if that happens, the prosecution will face far greater difficulties than they did in trying Megrahi. The first is the lack of proof of Mas’ud’s involvement in the La Belle bombing. The main witness to implicate him, Libyan Musbah Eter, who was himself convicted of the bombing, was an extremely tricky customer. A 1998 German TV investigation revealed him to be an asset of the US Central Intelligence Agency — a crucial detail in light of the fact that, at the time of La Belle, the CIA was running a massive covert campaign against Libya in which disinformation was central.
Eter has reportedly now implicated both Mas’ud and Megrahi in the Lockerbie bombing and claims to have heard Mas’ud speak of travelling to Malta to prepare for the attack. It’s easy to imagine what a defence advocate would do with him in cross-examination. “Why did you wait 20 years before volunteering this information Mr Eter?” would be the obvious opening question.
The La Belle prosecution also relied on information held in the archives of the former East German security service, the Stasi. While these files showed that some of the Stasi's Arab informants corroborated Eter's account, they also revealed that non-Libyan terrorists were involved in the plot, some of whom were also believed to be connected to the CIA. One of them even claimed to the German TV producers that he had a relationship with the CIA’s close ally, the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
The US government claimed that intercepted messages sent to and from Libya's East Berlin Embassy around the time of the bombing proved Libyan involvement. However, former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky claimed in his 1994 memoir The Other Side of Deception that the intercepted messages had in fact been broadcast by an undercover Mossad team in Libya. Mossad never denied the claim, but the German prosecutor responsible for the La Belle case never interviewed Ostrovsky.
Proving the Lockerbie bomb came from Malta would present the Crown with an even bigger problem. The claim relies on documentary evidence from Frankfurt airport that appeared to show that a rogue bag had been transferred from an incoming Air Malta flight to the feeder flight to Heathrow. Megrahi’s prosecutors claimed the bag was further transferred at Heathrow to PA103, but there is no proof that it was. Furthermore, the trial heard that Air Malta employed unusually strict baggage procedures that required the head loader to physically count the hold luggage to ensure the total matched the number checked in. Documents from the flight to Frankfurt on to which the Libyans supposedly smuggled the bomb, showed that the number tallied with the number of legitimate check-in bags. More worryingly for the Crown, since Megrahi's trial a meticulous investigation by Scottish researcher Dr Morag Kerr has effectively proved that the bomb originated from Heathrow.
The forensic case against Libya is also in tatters. Central to it was a fragment of circuit board, allegedly from the bomb's timer, which was said at trial to match circuit boards used in timers supplied to Libya. Evidence uncovered shortly before Megrahi's return to Libya in 2009 showed that it did not in fact match — there was a crucial metallurgical difference that ruled out the fragment originating from one of the Libyan timers.
The dire security situation in Libya would probably make it impossible for prosecutors to gather evidence there. Even if the county was stable, it would likely be a fruitless mission, as nothing has emerged publicly to suggest that Libya was behind the bombing. At the start of the revolution in 2011 the former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he had proof that Colonel Gaddafi was behind the bombing, but the best he could offer by way of evidence was the fact that the government had funded Megrahi's legal case. He later claimed that Expressen had misquoted him.
The most persuasive aspect of Frontline's case against Mas’ud is the denial by Megrahi and other Libyans of his existence. Clearly they calculated that it would be damaging to Megrahi and Fhimah's prospects if they were to be linked to a man named as a bomb-maker in the indictment against those accused of the La Belle bombing. However, lies do not prove guilt. In fear-governed societies like Gaddafi's Libya they are the lingua franca.
If Mas’ud received a fair trial for the Lockerbie bombing on the basis of Frontline's evidence, then he could not be convicted. However, in view of Megrahi's experience, that's a big ‘if’, because, as we now know, vital exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defence and the court was misled on a number of key points. The scandal has been worsened by the Scottish government's refusal to order an inquiry in to the Crown's conduct. The refusal prompted the Justice for Megrahi campaign group to make formal allegations of criminal misconduct against various Crown officials. No sooner had the allegations been made, than the Crown Office issued a statement declaring them to be “defamatory and entirely unfounded”. Unfortunately for the Crown Office, Police Scotland took them very seriously. Proving criminal intent will be a tall order, but the fact that a major investigation, known as Operation Sandwood, has been running for over 18 months seems to run contrary to claims that the allegations are baseless.
The fear is that the Frontline film’s claims will provide the Crown Office with a smokescreen, from behind which it can brief that Megrahi was guilty all along and that its failures were therefore immaterial. They were anything but and, until it is held to account for them, they will remain a terrible stain on Scottish justice.