Monday, 31 October 2016

Three dead men and their secrets

[This is the headline over an article by Kenneth Roy in today’s issue of the Scottish Review. It reads in part:]

Three of the key figures in the tangled politics of Lockerbie have now died within four years of each other: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person ever to have been convicted of the bombing (died 2012), Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the Lord Advocate who initiated the criminal proceedings against al-Megrahi (2013) and Tony Gauci, the chief prosecution witness (a few days ago). To say that all three left unanswered questions would be one of the under-statements of our time.

Gauci was the owner of a clothes shop in Malta called Mary’s House. It was alleged that on 7 December 1988, a fortnight before the atrocity, al-Megrahi bought some clothes and an umbrella from his shop, that the clothes were wrapped round the device which brought down flight 103, and that al-Megrahi, a former head of security at Libyan Arab Airlines, collaborated with an official of the airline to breach the security at Luqa Airport and get the device on the first stage of its journey as an interline bag to Frankfurt.
But how reliable was Gauci? His credibility took a battering four years after the trial in a remarkable newspaper interview with Lord Fraser. The words attributed to Fraser – he never denied using them – were: 'Gauci was not quite the full shilling. I think even his family would say he was an apple short of a picnic. He was quite a tricky guy. I don’t think he was deliberately lying, but if you asked him the same question three times he would just get irritated and refuse to answer’.
When his successor as Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, read this assessment of the Crown’s star witness, he asked Fraser to clarify his opinion of Gauci; others, including Tam Dalyell and al-Megrahi’s counsel, William Taylor QC, spoke out more strongly. If Fraser did clarify his opinion, the world was not made aware of it at the time.
Three years later, however, he gave Gauci a friendlier character reference in a television programme about the Lockerbie case: 'I have always been of the view, and I remain of the view, that both children and others who are not trying to rationalise their evidence are probably the most reliable witnesses and for that reason I think that Gauci was an extremely good witness’.
How this statement could be reconciled with his earlier disobliging view of the witness, Fraser did not divulge. But the remarks received little attention, for the story had moved on dramatically: al-Megrahi was now on his way home to Tripoli, released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, after serving eight years of a life sentence for mass murder.
Fraser’s re-evaluation of Gauci as 'an extremely good witness’ looked ridiculous on close scrutiny. When the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had a detailed look at the case, it concluded that there was 'no reasonable basis’ for the judges’ opinion that the purchase of the clothes from Mary’s House took place on 7 December; the commission decided that they have must have been bought on some unspecified date before then.
This was an encouraging finding for the many defenders of al-Megrahi (myself included) who believed that 7 December was the date of his only visit to Malta. But in 2014, in a documentary for American television, Ken Dornstein, whose brother died at Lockerbie, produced evidence which undermined the case for al-Megrahi’s innocence. During 15 years of patient investigation, Dornstein discovered that al-Megrahi had been in Malta in the weeks leading up to the bombing, and that he had company: a Libyan bomb-maker, Abu Agila Mas’ud, who was among those who greeted him on his return to Libya. (...) [RB: It was never disputed that Megrahi had been in Malta earlier in 1988. What was disputed -- and what has never been proved -- is that he was there on 23 November, the other possible purchase date. On the Dornstein films, see John Ashton here and Kevin Bannon here.]
A number of fascinating secrets now go to the grave and seem destined to stay there. We shall never know what Peter Fraser really thought of the witness who was to prove so vital to his successful prosecution. We shall never know how much Tony Gauci was paid by the American authorities in return for his helpful evidence (or how much the Scottish authorities knew of the deal). And we shall never know what al-Megrahi was doing in Malta with Mas’ud if he was not there to facilitate the planting of the device.
There is a fourth 'we shall never know’ that can be stated with a sense of growing probability: that with the passage of time, and as the important players in the saga continue to fall off their perches, we shall never know the truth about Lockerbie.


  1. It's odd how this type of article keeps resurfacing. Someone has died, who either told everything they possibly knew about it to the authorities years ago and who could not conceivably have remembered anything further, or who knew nothing at all about it in the first place. But now he's dead, oh the secrets he has taken to his grave!

    Tony Gauci appears to have served someone connected to the bombing in his shop. His police statements and his evidence at Camp Zeist are in the public record. So too is the diary of Harry Bell, which recounts the (mis)handling of Tony as a witness and the money that was apparently dangled before his eyes. Three separate expert witness reports take this entire sorry episode apart forensically, but even so they only reinforce what common sense tells us - that a shopkeeper cannot possibly be expected to recognise a customer he saw once, for about half an hour, after the extraordinary lengths of time involved in this case.

    We don't need Tony to realise that whoever the man was, it was not Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Not only was the day of the transaction (almost certainly 23rd November) one when there is no evidence at all that Megrahi was on the island, the multiple discrapancies between Tony's initial description of the purchaser and Megrahi's actual appearance are glaring.

    All this happened almost 18 years ago. Even if we had someone who was now alleged to have been that purchaser, and Tony Gauci was still alive, there is no chance whatsoever that a positive identification could be made. What else could Tony tell us? How much money he was paid? What he did with it? Could he give us any real insight into his thought processes when he repeatedly said Megrahi resmbled the purchaser but declined to say he actually WAS the man? I doubt it.

    So what has the case lost with the death of Tony Gauci? I'd say nothing at all.

    Now, Peter Fraser. Peter acknowledged that Tony was an unreliable witness. This is something that shouts from the rooftops, without any need for Peter's forensic insight to inform us. Peter later revised that assessment when it was politically expedient to do so. He was a politician. Colour me shocked - I don't think. Would exhuming Peter Fraser to confirm that he thought Tony was unreliable help us any? Really?

    And then we have the man who probably knew less about it than anyone else. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He was in Malta on 20th December 1988, and in Tripoli in the afternoon of 21st December. The crime happened in London, in the afternoon of 21st December. Would it help us if we knew more about what Megrahi was doing on Malta on that trip?

    He had a business meeting with Vincent Vassallo, we know that. He also said he went shopping for carpets for his new house, and there was some talk of getting an estimate from a joiner to fit a wooden bannister rail in the new house. He also may have visited a lady friend in the evening, although he was less comfortable talking about that. Was he with Masoud, or did they simply catch the same flights? I don't know. Does it matter? It's hard to see how is does, in relation to Lockerbie.

    Maybe Megrahi was no more than he said. Maybe he really was higher up in the Libyan security services than he admitted to and maybe he was involved with something with Masoud that day. But since the pair of them were a thousand miles away from where someone else was planting the Lockerbie bomb, it is perverse to imagine the answer to this could illuminate anything about Lockerbie.

    I think I feel a letter to the Scottish Review coming on.

  2. And let us remember that Lord Fraser began his peculiar behaviour, or indifference to the truth and the facts, at the FAI, by adducing misleading evidence concerning my activities at Lockerbie in the aftermath of the disaster. He should have been more severely criticised for that, but was essentially let off the hook by Sheriff Mowat in his Determination, in which he said that the mistakes were understandable in "all the circumstances" pertaining at the time. What was all that about? He was the first Lord Advocate to show himself unfit for office. It is arguable that subsequent holders of the Office have not been any more worthy.