Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Malta connection

[The January 2016 issue of the excellent iScot magazine, which is in newsagents today, contains an article entitled “Lockerbie: the mystery shopper”, the second in a series by Dr Morag Kerr, the first of which is referred to here. The second instalment deals with the evidence from Malta that put a Libyan into the frame. It reads in part:]

A pair of men’s cheap slacks recovered from the wreckage of Pan Am 103 (...) were not only traced to the manufacturer but to the shop that sold them 2,519 miles from Lockerbie

The trousers were among the debris from Pan Am flight 103 picked up around Lockerbie in early 1989, severely blast-damaged and believed to have been packed in the suitcase with the bomb.  It took months to track “Yorkie Clothing” to an industrial estate on Malta, but once there, the firm’s stock records were a goldmine.  The size, the material and a serial number identified the trousers as having been supplied to a small local retailer on 18th November 1988.  

The shop, “Mary’s House”, was only three miles from Malta airport where the investigators believed the bomb had been smuggled on board a flight to Frankfurt.

Detectives visited the shop on 1st September 1989.  Incredibly, the proprietor Tony Gauci remembered selling the slacks to a customer.  Not only that, he listed other items sold in the same transaction, items which also corresponded to clothing found blast-damaged at Lockerbie.

Tony was a men’s outfitter, and he mainly remembered the customer’s body shape and size.  He recalled the face less well, but construction of a photofit was arranged, and he worked with an artist to produce a sketch drawing.  A local suspect was suggested by a Maltese policeman and Tony was shown his first photospread, a card with a number of photographs including one of the suspect.  He didn’t pick anyone out, so they tried again.  And again.  Over several months he was shown dozens of photographs more or less resembling his description of the customer, but he never made a confident identification.

This itself is problematic. Repeated viewings of photospreads, and the construction of photofits and artist’s impressions, are known to erode a witness’s original memory and decrease the accuracy of subsequent identifications.  There were other problems too.

The pictures were simple mug-shots, with no clue about height or build.  Tony said the man was dark-skinned, but nobody asked him how dark, or if the man was actually black.  Tony consistently put the customer at about fifty years old, but most of the pictures were of much younger men.  When he picked out a couple as “resembling” the purchaser, he also said they were “too young”.

A year passed, and it began to look as if the Gauci lead was going nowhere. Then, in late 1990, the focus of the investigation shifted from the Syrian-based PFLP-GC to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.  In January 1991 an FBI agent provided the Scottish investigators with names of known or suspected Libyan agents plus a couple of photos of one of them – Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

One of the al-Megrahi photos was incorporated into yet another photospread.  Once again Tony rejected all the pictures as “too young”, but this time the detectives didn’t leave it at that and asked him to look again and he finally indicated Megrahi’s picture.  He merely stated that it “resembles [the customer] a lot”, then qualified that by remarking that the resemblance wasn’t as close as another photo he had been shown.  However, this was enough for the detectives to treat it as a positive identification of a suspect as the clothes purchaser. (...)

Mr Gauci never explicitly stated that Megrahi was his customer, not then and not when he came face to face with him eight years later at Camp Zeist.  Even at the formal identity parade he said “not the man I saw in my shop, but he resembles him a lot.”  

And Megrahi wasn’t the only person Tony thought ‘resembled’ the purchaser.  For a time he was enamoured of a picture of the Palestinian terrorist Abu Talb, an early police suspect.  Twice he told the police he’d seen the man again in Malta – once in a bar, and once actually in his shop.  On neither occasion is it at all likely he saw either Megrahi or Abu Talb.

None of this appeared to bother the police.  

The other major issue was the date of the purchase.  Obviously this must have been between 18th November and 20th December.  Mr Gauci said it was evening, midweek, and he was alone in the shop because his brother Paul was watching football on television.  It was before the Christmas lights were erected, and it was raining.

After checking details of televised football matches the date was narrowed down to either 23 November or 7 December.  Objective analysis clearly comes down in favour of the earlier day with the later one more of an outside possibility, but after it was discovered that Megrahi had visited Malta on 7 December and hadn’t been near the place on 23 November, all the stops were pulled out to promote the December date.

It’s difficult to believe the judges bought into this narrative, but they did.  They decided the December date was the correct one, despite the presence of Christmas lights and the absence of rain, and on that basis declared that Megrahi must have been the man who bought the clothes.

They were helped by Mr Gauci’s memory, which tended to shift towards whatever the detectives seemed to want him to remember.  By the time of the trial he had changed his mind about the customer’s height, build, age, skin colour, the extent of the rain and the presence of the Christmas lights, always to favour the prosecution case. (...)

Within days of the Gauci/Mary’s House connection being discovered the US authorities were keen to offer these crucial witnesses “unlimited money” for their evidence.  A sum of $10,000 could be made available immediately.  The Scottish investigators demurred, knowing this could cause serious difficulties for a prosecution under Scots law.  As a result the brothers didn’t receive any money until after the case was over, but they were well aware that a reward of $4 million had been publicly advertised for information against Megrahi and his co-accused Fhimah.

In the end, after the trial ended, Tony received $2 million and Paul $1 million.  Paul, who didn’t give evidence in court, was rewarded for “maintaining the resolve of his brother.”

When the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission issued its 2007 report, finding six grounds for believing that Megrahi’s conviction might have been a miscarriage of justice, all six related directly or indirectly to the identification evidence.  Most damningly, the Commission found that there was no basis in evidence for the trial court’s finding that the clothes had been purchased on 7th December – the hook that supported the entire daisy-chain of circular reasoning.

The subsequent appeal was widely expected to succeed, until it was abandoned by Megrahi when he returned to Libya in 2009.  In spite of this, investigation of the case has continued.  While the Crown Office insists it is exploring the possibility of charging others they allege acted as Megrahi’s accomplices, experts connected to his defence team have been otherwise engaged.

Non-disclosure of evidence by the Crown was a perennial problem throughout the case and repeated legal challenges prompted a constant trickle of new material.  Crucial documents that emerged in the days before the appeal was withdrawn opened up new avenues of inquiry and work continued.  In a parallel effort, a group of interested amateurs re-examined evidence that had been available for some time.

As we enter the 28th year of the Lockerbie investigation we know more than ever about how the atrocity was carried out, but at the same time deeper mysteries have emerged.

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