[The current (December 2015) issue of the excellent iScot magazine contains an article entitled “Lockerbie: Unanswered questions”, the first in a series by Dr Morag Kerr. It reads in part:]
Most people in Scotland probably know that, some quarter of a century ago, a Jumbo Jet with the name Maid of the Seas painted on her nose-cone fell out of the sky on to the Dumfriesshire town of Lockerbie. Many people still harbour grave doubts about the safety of the conviction, twelve years later, of the so-called “Lockerbie bomber” Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Few retain a detailed recollection of the circumstances, but “Wasn’t the key witness paid millions to implicate him?” is a common refrain.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi died in May 2012, but the doubts linger. Efforts to secure a third appeal against his conviction received a setback last month when the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission refused to proceed unless his family, virtually incommunicado inside war-torn Libya, provided them with a specific document which doesn’t actually exist under Sharia law. Quite separately, however, a major police investigation is underway into formal allegations of wrongdoing against individuals involved in both the original investigation and the later court proceedings. A third strand is public petition PE1370 calling for an independent inquiry into the Lockerbie affair, laid before the Scottish parliament in October 2010. Only two months ago the disaster was once again in the headlines as the Lord Advocate revealed that he was on the trail of two of Megrahi’s alleged accomplices – but was that story quite what it seemed? This month, with further revelations likely in the near future, we look back on the chain of events that began in 1988. (...)
A terrorist attack was immediately suspected, and senior police insisted the crash site be treated as a crime scene. Detectives reviewing the case in 2015 have remarked that even today it’s unlikely the evidence-gathering could be handled any better, and it’s hard to argue with that. Meticulous records of where every item was recovered yielded a detailed picture of how the plane broke up and what caused it.
What caused it turned out to be a small improvised explosive device disguised as a radio-cassette recorder, packed into a suitcase with some items of clothing. The baggage container carrying the exploding suitcase was identified as one containing only transfer luggage – luggage belonging to passengers connecting from other flights. The bomb hadn’t been checked in at Heathrow. The relief of the British investigators when they discovered this seems to have been immense.
After that, things got murkier. While most of the luggage in that container was transferred from a single flight (a feeder from Frankfurt also designated PA103), a few items from other flights were also present. The Frankfurt luggage was security-screened in Germany and shunted directly across the tarmac, but the other cases had been collected in Terminal 3 and were supposed to have been screened there.
When the fragments of the container were reassembled the explosion proved to have been about ten inches from the floor. The Heathrow interline cases had been loaded first and covered the bottom, and everything from the second layer upwards was from the feeder flight. The forensic scientists believed the bomb suitcase had been on the second layer, and so attention focussed on Frankfurt.
The German police joined the inquiry, and they had news for the Scottish investigators. Two months before Lockerbie they had busted a terrorist gang in Düsseldorf, making bombs obviously designed to destroy aircraft in flight. The gang was a cell of a hard-line Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, or PFLP-GC. Unfortunately the suspects had been released by the German authorities, and it was feared they had regrouped and completed their mission.
A picture began to emerge. On 3rd July 1988 an Iranair passenger flight carrying pilgrims travelling to Mecca had been shot down over the Persian Gulf by an American cruiser. The aftermath of the disaster was appallingly mishandled by the US authorities and Ayatollah Khomeini vowed revenge. Money appeared to have changed hands, and the suspicion was that Iran had employed proven sabotage experts to do its dirty work.
There was a catch to all this, which the Germans tried to point out to the British investigators. The type of device the PFLP-GC was known to be making, launched from Frankfurt, would have exploded somewhere over Belgium. These devices were triggered by the drop in internal pressure that occurs shortly after take-off, and would detonate about half an hour after that. An IED like that, exploding over Lockerbie, must have been loaded at Heathrow. The forensics team discounted this and remained wedded to their belief that the bomb had flown in from Germany.
By March 1989 Paul Channon, the UK Transport Secretary, was talking about imminent arrests. However, no arrests were forthcoming. The case receded from public consciousness until the autumn, when it emerged that a new lead had been uncovered. Investigators were now certain the bomb had arrived in Frankfurt on a third aircraft, flight KM180 from Malta. (...)
The investigators secured one big breakthrough. Scraps of burnt clothing believed to have been packed with the bomb were traced to a Maltese manufacturer, and from there to a small retailer in the Maltese town of Sliema, only three miles from the airport – and the shopkeeper Tony Gauci remembered selling some of the items to a customer in late 1988. He described the man and his purchases, even remembering the bill and the amount of change given. Detectives set out to try to identify this mystery shopper.
However, as 1989 became 1990, the case went cold again. The clothes purchaser was elusive, and nobody could figure out how Air Malta’s security precautions might have been breached. Once again the story faded from the news until in the autumn of 1990 another change of tack hit the headlines. Iran and the PFLP-GC were no longer suspected. Iran had taken a “bum rap”, according to US President George Bush Snr. The new suspect was Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, and the motive was retaliation for the US bombing of the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi back in 1986.
Events moved quickly after that. By January 1991 the police had a suspect, a Libyan national named Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and on 13th February Tony Gauci picked Megrahi’s passport photo out of a photo-identity parade. Some time later it was discovered that Megrahi had been at Malta airport on the morning of 21st December 1988, travelling under an assumed name. Case closed, or so it seemed. In November 1991 simultaneous indictments were issued in Scotland and the USA against Megrahi and his colleague Lamin Fhimah for the murder of 270 people at Lockerbie.
Megrahi and Fhimah, however, were in Libya, protesting their innocence. Gaddafi offered to try the pair in Libya, if he was provided with the relevant evidence. This was correct procedure under the Montreal Convention, but unsurprisingly the offer was rejected. Stalemate. Britain and the USA approached the UN complaining that Gaddafi was sheltering terrorists from justice, and as a result punitive sanctions were imposed which heavily impacted the Libyan economy. In the years that followed the damage multiplied, and eventually the two accused agreed to surrender themselves for trial to secure an end to the blockade.
It was agreed that the trial would be held in a neutral venue. A disused US air base in the Netherlands, Camp van Zeist, was decreed to be Scottish territory for the duration and converted into a court facility. The trial began on 3rd May 2000, and on 31st January 2001 the verdict was announced. Megrahi was found guilty, but Fhimah was not guilty.
The controversy began immediately. How could one conspirator be guilty but not the other? It was Fhimah who was alleged to have put the bomb on the plane, so how had Megrahi managed it without Fhimah’s assistance? The defence had destroyed the prosecution’s star witness, a Libyan CIA informer called Abdul Majid Giaka, and without his testimony was there really enough evidence to convict beyond reasonable doubt? In late January the Foreign Office had been briefing in the expectation of a double acquittal. Many people, including UN-appointed observer to the trial Dr. Hans Köchler, believed there was an enormous amount of entirely reasonable doubt.
An appeal was heard at Camp Zeist in early 2002. The defence had new evidence. A Heathrow security guard revealed details of a security breach airside in Terminal 3, the night before the disaster. A door padlock had been broken, apparently from the landward side, not far from the shed where the ill-fated container was parked the following afternoon. The appeal judges heard his evidence, but dismissed it on the grounds that the trial court recognised that Heathrow security was poor, and knowing there had been an actual breach wouldn’t have altered their conclusions. Megrahi was sent to Barlinnie to begin a life sentence for mass murder.
In 2003 he applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission for leave to mount a second appeal. In its 2007 report the Commission identified six grounds on which a miscarriage of justice might have occurred. These centred round the disputed fingering of Megrahi as the man who bought the infamous Maltese clothes, and without the eye-witness identification the case was expected to collapse.
Megrahi’s second appeal came to court in spring 2009, by which time he had received what turned out to be a death sentence – a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. The following August his application for compassionate release was granted by Kenny MacAskill, three days after Megrahi had formally abandoned his hard-fought-for appeal.
The appeal could have continued despite the release of the applicant. Was Megrahi pressurised into withdrawing it? His advocate Maggie Scott said that he was. Kenny MacAskill has consistently denied it. Professor Robert Black has a more nuanced take on the matter, suggesting that Megrahi was poorly informed about the options available to him and open to pressure from Libyan officials anxious to get him back home.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the appeal was swiftly forgotten in the universal stampede to condemn the Scottish government for releasing a mass murderer. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, David Cameron, Jack McConnell, Barack Obama, Robert Menendez and others, who before Megrahi’s release had breathed not a hint of opposition (because of course they were all heartily glad to see Megrahi back in Libya and the obstacle to trade and oil deals with Gaddafi removed), turned on Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond and monstered them.
Others were dismayed for a different reason. The abandoning of the appeal torpedoed the chance to have the case reviewed again in court and the doubts and uncertainties examined. Was it possible, or likely, that Megrahi had bought these clothes? Did the bomb really start its journey on Malta, as the investigators believed? And what was all that about a fragment of printed circuit board, widely alleged to be a fabricated plant?
Subsequent articles in this series will examine these contentious issues. How much reasonable doubt surrounds Megrahi's guilt? Was the evidence tampered with? Might we, indeed, suggest that his innocence can be proved beyond reasonable doubt?