[What follows is the text of an article by Dr Morag Kerr that was published on Wings Over Scotland on this date in 2013:]
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie should be commended for starting 2013 with a legitimate request rather than a party-political attack. The Herald today reports his renewed call for a public inquiry into the events of the Lockerbie disaster.
The call was prompted by the new Libyan government’s pledge to release documents relating to the incident “as soon as time, security and stability permitted”. But what will such documents reveal beyond what we already know?
Tam Dalyell once said that the Lockerbie case is so complicated you’d need to be a Professor of Lockerbie Studies to understand it. In some ways that’s true, because there are interminable complications, wrinkles and what-ifs to consider. But there’s a simple way of looking at it too, and that is this: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted because the police firmly believed the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 began its journey at Malta airport around nine o’clock on the morning of the disaster. Megrahi, who was suggested as a potential suspect by the CIA, was discovered to have been catching a plane from Malta to Tripoli that was open for check-in at precisely that time.
If the bomb really did fly from Malta, then it might be reasonable to regard Megrahi with a suspicious eye. But the evidence for the bomb ever having been within a thousand miles of the island of Malta is beyond tenuous, and Megrahi was never shown to have done anything at the airport that morning apart from catch his flight home. If the bomb was introduced somewhere else, he actually has a rather good alibi.
The biggest mystery of the entire saga is why the police persisted in their absolute conviction that the bomb had travelled on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, despite months and indeed years of investigation finding no evidence of anything untoward at the airport that morning, and in fact no way an unaccompanied suitcase could have been smuggled on board that plane. This is even more surprising when you realise that within only weeks of the disaster, the investigation had very strong evidence indicating that the bomb had actually been smuggled into a baggage container at Heathrow airport, an hour before the feeder flight from Frankfurt landed.
In early January 1989 a baggage handler at Heathrow described having seen a suitcase which he said had appeared mysteriously while he was away on a tea break, on the (previously bare) floor of the container in question, in the corner known by the investigators to be where the explosion had happened. He described the suitcase as a brown hardshell Samsonite. By mid-February, forensic examination had identified the suitcase containing the bomb as a brown plastic hardshell, and by March they knew it was a Samsonite.
The absence of any rejoicing at this point is positively spooky. Rather than pursuing this lead vigorously, the police more or less ignored it. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the forensic results to declare that the explosion had been in a suitcase on the second layer of luggage, and sure enough, the boffins concluded that’s probably how it was. There had been nothing on top of the mystery item before the Frankfurt luggage was added, therefore the bomb suitcase must have been one of the ones that came in on the feeder flight. The investigation remained stalled at this stage for months, until in August a tenuous lead was identified at Frankfurt which sent the police chasing off to Malta, and they never looked back.
The question that was never answered was this. Whose was the mystery suitcase loaded into the container while John Bedford was on his tea break, if it wasn’t the bomb? The police seemed happy to leave that one hanging. That suitcase didn’t matter, because it was in the wrong place. By about two inches. That line of reasoning held up all through the initial stages of the investigation, and the Fatal Accident Inquiry in Dumfries in 1990-91. Bomb on second layer, no Heathrow-origin luggage on second layer, therefore bomb arrived from Frankfurt. This of course presupposed that the Heathrow-origin luggage had not been moved, but the baggage handler who loaded the suitcases from the feeder flight, Amarjit Sidhu, was adamant he hadn’t moved anything, so that was all right.
The problem with this is that it’s impossible. A suitcase under the bomb suitcase would inevitably have been pulverised. All six pieces of luggage identified as being legitimately placed in that container at Heathrow were recovered, and none of them sustained that sort of damage. Not only that, when the explosion ripped apart the bomb suitcase and the luggage in its immediate vicinity, it created a well-stirred mix of fragments which scattered across the countryside. The searchers combed the fields for these fragments, and the forensics team singled them out for special attention.
Numerous pieces of even the most severely damaged items were recovered in this way, and everything in that category (apart from the bomb suitcase itself) was known, legitimate Heathrow and Frankfurt passenger luggage. There was no sign of any innocent (even if unidentified) suitcase in the mix that might have been loaded at Heathrow and ended up below the bomb suitcase, brown Samsonite hardshell or not. So, if Sidhu hadn’t moved Bedford’s mystery suitcase, and the explosion had been in the case on top of Bedford’s case – well, the laws of physics look like they’re in a bit of trouble.
Putting it simply, both planks of the 1989 police reasoning cannot simultaneously be true. If Sidhu didn’t move the Heathrow-origin luggage, as was believed in 1989, then the Bedford suitcase (on the floor of the container) must have been the bomb, because there’s nothing else for it to be. If there is absolutely no wiggle-room at all for the bomb suitcase to have been on the floor of the container, then Sidhu must have moved the Bedford case – which demolishes the argument used in 1989 to exclude that case from being in the second layer, and again leaves the possibility of its being the bomb wide open.
The only brown Samsonite hardshell suitcase seen by any witness, which had appeared mysteriously in almost the exact position of the explosion, and which the police knew about less than three weeks after the disaster, was ruled out on the basis on an absolute logical impossibility.
Once this paradox is identified, the crucial dilemma is clear. Which is less credible? Sidhu’s statement that he didn’t move the Heathrow-origin luggage, or the forensic conclusion that the bomb suitcase had been on the second layer? Because one of these is simply wrong.
Sidhu was absolutely consistent over three separate police statements that he definitely didn’t move that luggage. Then in the witness box in Dumfries, under oath, he emphatically and specifically denied having lifted out one of the original items and replaced it on a different layer. And there’s no reason why he should have done anything like that. The feeder flight was late, leaving him only 15 minutes for a job he normally had half an hour to complete; it was dark, cold, raining and blowing a gale; and the original items were already well positioned. Why on earth would he have started heaving cases he didn’t need to heave?
In contrast, the best estimate for the height of the explosion was ten inches above the floor of the container. The bomb suitcase was nine inches deep, but what’s the margin of error in that estimate anyway? It’s also far from impossible that the stacked luggage shifted a few inches due to in-flight turbulence or even banking, moving the bottom suitcase into the position indicated. There were other factors of course, including an examination of the bashed-up and fragmented aluminium base of the container somewhat akin to Mystic Meg reading a palm, but it was all subjective opinion. The bomb suitcase certainly must have been either the case on the bottom of the stack or the one on top of it, and on balance the forensics boffins thought it was the upper one of the two, but that’s as far as it goes.
So what was the court’s decision on this point? That’s a tricky one. In actual fact the court at Camp Zeist was never made aware just how crucial an issue this was, and the bench merely accepted, “for the purposes of this argument” that the bomb suitcase had been on the second layer. How that came about, and John Bedford’s extraordinarily suspicious brown Samsonite hardshell came to be wafted airily to “some more remote corner of the container”, is a whole other article in itself.
But now here we are, in 2012. Megrahi’s second appeal (begun in 2009) centred mainly on the undermining of the eye-witness evidence said to have identified him as the man who bought the clothes packed in the suitcase with the bomb. While that argument was likely to have succeeded if he hadn’t dropped the appeal, it didn’t address the question of the route of the bomb suitcase. Did it fly from Malta, or was it introduced directly at Heathrow?
The ongoing Lockerbie investigation, paid for from our taxes, has been convinced that the bomb flew in from Malta since September 1989. It’s still convinced that Megrahi was “the Lockerbie bomber”, even if there is doubt about his having been the purchaser of the clothes. Why not? He was at the airport when the bomb was smuggled on to the Air Malta flight. He must have been involved! The ongoing investigation believes he didn’t act alone, though, and is determined to track down his supposed accomplices.
We’ve been hearing about investigations in Libya almost since the day of Gaddafi’s death. More than one Libyan official, anxious to curry favour with the Western powers, has claimed to have evidence of Gadaffi having ordered Megrahi to carry out the atrocity. All this has come to nothing. Now the investigators have turned their attention to Malta in the quest for the elusive “accomplices”, though what they imagine they’re going to find there after 24 years that the original investigation didn’t find in 1989-91 is difficult to understand.
When they find absolutely nothing on Malta, as they found absolutely nothing in Libya, is it too much to hope that some young, smart, entirely reconstructed detective might sit down and consider: could the reason we haven’t been able to find anything possibly be because we’re looking in the wrong place?