Saturday, 21 November 2015

Lockerbie prosecution leaves a 'gaping hole'

[This is the headline over a report published in The Guardian on this date in 2000. It reads as follows:]

After 73 days of evidence and more than 230 witnesses, the Lockerbie trial was adjourned yesterday amid warnings of a yawning chasm in the crown's case which augured little chance of conviction of any of the accused.

Since the indictment faced by Abdelbaset Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah was read in the high security courthouse at Camp Zeist on May 6, the prosecution's case has travelled across continents and through territory more commonly associated with airport potboilers.

But although prosecution lawyers have done their best to construct an intricate trail between the Libyans accused and the biggest act of mass murder in British history, they have continually been let down.

Key witnesses have crumbled under cross examination; others have refused to make the links the prosecution so desperately needed them to do; some have offered testimony so bizarre that even the prosecution admits it is worthless. And there is the problem of the "gaping hole".

The Libyans face three charges: murder, conspiracy to murder and a breach of the Aviation Security Act. For these charges to succeed, according to Robert Black QC, the Edinburgh law professor who proposed the trial at a neutral venue, the prosecution must prove the bomb which blew up Pan Am flight 103 began its journey in Malta. Prosecution lawyers had barely sat down after completing their case before Professor Black was warning they had not succeeded in the fundamentals of their task.

"Unless I have missed something, and I do not think I have, there is a gaping hole at the centre of the crown's case," he said. "It is an absolutely crucial element in all the three charges that the suitcase containing the bomb started in Malta. The crown has to prove that the bomb was planted at Malta - and it has not. It has merely proved there is a theoretical possibility that it was."

The omission is hardly lost on defence lawyers. Lord Sutherland yesterday granted a request from Richard Keen QC, counsel for Fhimah, for a one week adjournment. On Tuesday Mr Keen will begin his "no case to answer" submission. If he is successful, half of the trial will come crashing down.

The chances of Mr Keen's success depend on the weight of evidence stacked against his client. The credibility of key prosecution witnesses may have been destroyed in cross examination, but such things are beyond the judge's consideration.

Although the route which brought them to Camp Zeist is complex, the charges faced by the Libyans rely on a few simple premises. Megrahi and Fhimah are alleged to have been members of the JSO, the Libyan intelligence service, who worked under cover in the offices of Libyan Arab Airlines at Malta's Luqa airport. On December 21 1988, the prosecution claims, the pair planted a bomb which was contained within a radio cassette recorder in a Samsonite suitcase and loaded it on an Air Malta plane at Frankfurt airport.

The crown says that suitcase was transferred on to Pan Am flight 103. A few hours later the jumbo blew up over Lockerbie, killing all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 people on the ground. It is a neat scenario, but it is far from certain the judges will agree that the crown has proved it is accurate.

The trial of Megrahi, the co-accused, is destined to continue until his defence has been fully heard. William Taylor QC, counsel for Megrahi, yesterday asked for an adjournment to allow Syria to respond to a court request for the release of a se cret document which claims to offer an alternative explanation of the bombing.

Both Megrahi and Fhimah have lodged a special defence of incrimination, blaming Palestinian terrorist groups, including the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. If Fhimah's no case to answer plea is successful, his side of the story will never be heard. But, over the next weeks, it is expected that Mr Taylor will advance the scenario first accepted by those investigating the bombing.

In the first years of the investigation there was just one working theory. It was believed that the bomb was a revenge attack mounted by the PFLP-GC for the shooting down of an Iranian airbus in the Gulf by the USS Vincennes in July 1988. This theory was ditched around the time of the Gulf war, when America took on Iraq with the acquiescence of Syria and Iran.

For special defence to succeed, Mr Taylor, and perhaps Mr Keen, need not prove this scenario accurate. They need only place reasonable doubt over the veracity of the scenario advanced by the crown. Much of the crown's case relies on technical evidence which has gone unreported and unobserved as the trial grinds on in Holland. Yet there have been a few key witnesses - and they have not lived up to expectation.

The first of these was Anthony Gauci. This Maltese shop owner was crucial to linking Megrahi to the bomb. When investigators picked through the wreckage of flight 103 they found clothing stained with residue from a Semtex explosion; it was labelled "Malta Trading Company". The clothing was sold at Mr Gauci's shop. But, although Mr Gauci said Megrahi resembled a man whom he remembered buying similar clothing before the bombing, he stopped short of full identification.

Next came Edwin Bollier, a Swiss businessman whose Zurich-based company, Mebo, is alleged to have made the timer used in the bomb. For years before the trial, Mr Bollier waged an internet campaign denying the timer was supplied by his firm. Under questioning from the prosecution, however, he conceded that it could only have come from Mebo.

When Mr Bollier said he supplied such timers solely to Libya, the prosecution's case appeared to receive a boost. But that may have later been dented by the admission that he also supplied timers to the Stasi, the East German security force, who in turn backed Palestinian terrorist organisations.

As far as star witnesses are concerned, that left only Abdul Majid Giaka - a Libyan who worked alongside the accused at Luqa airport. Giaka was a double agent: working for the CIA at the same time as the JSO. He defected to the US on the witness protection programme and, as he emerged after 10 years, he told the court Fhimah had shown him explosives in his drawer; he claimed he had once handed Megrahi a report on how to place a bomb on a plane leaving Luqa airport. Finally, in his most crucial piece of evidence, he said he had watched Megrahi and Fhimah take a Samsonite suitcase, flown in from Libya, unaccompanied through customs.

But under cross-examination his credibility was tarnished. "While in America, have you been able to dip into gems of American literature, such as their short-story writers like James Thurber?" asked Mr Keen. "Have you encountered someone called Mitty, first name Walter?"

Main players in bomb trial
Abdelbaset Al Megrahi
One of the accused. He is alleged to have worked undercover for the JSO, the Libyan intelligence agency, as head of security at Libyan Arab Airlines at Malta's Luqa airport. The prosecution says he used this position to plant the bomb on an Air Malta plane which fed on to flight 103 at Frankfurt. He has lodged a special defence of incrimination.

Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah
The co-accused. Like Megrahi, Fhimah is alleged to have been working undercover for the JSO when he worked as station manager at Libyan Arab Airlines.

Anthony Gauci
A Maltese shop owner whom the prosecution claims sold the clothing found in the case which housed the bomb.

Edwin Bollier
A Swiss businessman whose company, Mebo, made the timer which the prosecution say was used in the Lockerbie bomb.

Abdul Majid Giaka
The Libyan supergrass. He was a double agent - working for the JSO and the CIA - when he worked with the accused at Luqa airport. Claims to have been shown explosives in Fhimah's desk. Defence portrayed him as a fantasist who made up his testimony to secure a new life in the US.

No comments:

Post a Comment