Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Judges’ conclusions from Frankfurt printout unwarranted

[What follows is excerpted from a report published in the Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times on this date in 2009:]

A German expert has raised fresh controversy on a crucial piece of evidence in the conviction of Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi as the Lockerbie bomber.

The verdict relied heavily on the judges' acceptance of a brief computer printout of the baggage movements at Frankfurt airport. The prosecution had argued it proved an unaccompanied bag containing the bomb was transferred from Air Malta flight KM180 to the Pan Am flight 103 to London on December 21, 1988.

The expert who helped design the baggage system in place at Frankfurt airport in 1988 and familiar with the operating software has now said: "The Lockerbie judges got it wrong, they simply got it wrong."

In the original trial, the Crown could offer no evidence of how the bag got aboard the Air Malta flight in the first place. Malta had presented records showing that no unaccompanied baggage was on the Air Malta flight in question.

The baggage reconciliation system at Malta's airport did not only rely on computer lists. Personnel also counted all pieces of baggage, manually checking them off against passenger records. Maltese baggage loaders had been prepared to testify, yet they were never called as witnesses.

In spite of a lack of evidence that the baggage containing the bomb actually left Malta, the judges concluded that it must have been the case, based on an interpretation of the computer print out from Frankfurt.

The hotly disputed computer printout was saved by Bogomira Erac, a technician at Frankfurt airport. She testified at the original trial under the pseudonym Madame X. One of the reasons this computer printout was so controversial was that although Ms Erac thought it important to save, she then tossed it in her locker and went on holiday.

Only on her return did she hand it to her supervisor who gave it to the Bundeskiminalmt (BKA), the German Federal Police. The BKA did not disclose this printout to Scottish and American investigators for several months.

The German expert has now examined all of the evidence that related to the Frankfurt baggage system placed before the court in the original trial. The expert, who agreed to review this evidence on condition of anonymity, spent six months examining the data.

Although he demanded anonymity, he agreed that if a formal approach was made by Mr Al-Megrahi's lawyers or the Scottish Criminal Cases review commission, he would meet them.

He was puzzled when he saw how short the printout out was and explained that there was no need to print a very small extract from the baggage system traffic, as a full back-up tape was made. This would have shown all the baggage movements at Frankfurt airport that day.

When it was explained that the court heard that the system was purged every few days and that no back-up tape existed, he said: "This is not true."

"Of course it is possible no back-up tape was made for that particular day but that day would have been the first and only day in the history of Frankfurt Airport when not one piece of baggage or cargo was lost, rerouted or misplaced," he added.

He went on to say that FAG, the company that operated Frankfurt Airport, needed these tapes to defend against insurance claims for lost or damaged cargo.

The expert maintains that even with his expert knowledge of the system he could not draw the conclusion reached by the Lockerbie trial judges in 2001.

"They would have needed much more information of the baggage movements, not this very narrow time frame," he said.

Questions are now raised about why Mr Al-Megrahi's legal team at the trial in the Netherlands decided to accept and rely upon a report on the baggage system compiled by a BKA officer and not find an expert on the system. The Scottish police also did not seek to interview those people who designed and installed the system.

Jim Swire, whose daughter lost her life in the bombing and who has been campaigning relentlessly for the truth to emerge, explained there was a break-in at Heathrow airport, early on December 21, 1988, in the relevant area of Terminal 3. This was followed by the sighting (before the flight from Frankfurt had even landed) of an unauthorised bag within the very container where the explosion later occurred.

"What we need now is an equally clear explanation as to why the information about the Heathrow break-in was concealed for 13 years," he said.

Dr Swire added: "At last, the time has come to turn away from Malta and Frankfurt and look a lot closer to home at Heathrow airport for the truth, for that is what we still seek.


  1. I've also spent a long time examining that printout and the associated paperwork.

    There are 25 items of transfer luggage listed. Only 10 of these can be unambiguously reconciled to legitimate documented luggage known to be coming through the system.

    3 items Karen Noonan, from Vienna
    2 items Patricia Coyle, from Vienna
    3 items Thomas Walker, from Kuwait
    1 rush-tag item from Rome (Susan Costa)
    1 item from Berlin Tegel (Weibke Wagenfuhr)

    That leaves 15 items unreconciled, not one.

    We also know about certain items of luggage which must be included within that group, but which can't be reconciled by the standard method described by Kasteleiner in the witness box.

    2 items from Munich (Adolph Weinacker)
    1 or 2 items from Berlin (Kenneth Gibson)
    1 or 2 rush-tag items from Berlin (John Hubbard)
    1 item from Berlin (Fiona Leckie)
    1 item from Berlin (Thomas Trautmann)
    2 items from Berlin (Gerd Pilz) - this last isn't conclusively documented but seems probable.

    These were definitely on the plane and definitely transfer luggage at Frankfurt, but the reconciliation isn't there. In fact both the Munich and the Berlin flights were late, that luggage all missed its original flight, and had to be re-booked. Using this information another 13 of the items on the printout can be identified to a good-guess level.

    These are the earliest items to be booked in. First a pair of items which are probably the two Munich cases, and then a group of 11 items all entered as a batch in less than two minutes at noon. These are probably a batch of items from the delayed Berlin flight, including the Gibson, Hubbard, Leckie, Trautmann and (probably) Pilz luggage.

    However, even assuming the maximum possible reconciliation with known luggage from Berlin (8 items as above), we're still 3 short of the recorded 11 items transferred to PA103. There is no more possible passenger luggage that could be involved there. The reasonable explanation is that there were (at least) three more items of rush-tag luggage as well as the two Hubbard items we know about.

    We wouldn't have known anything about the possibility of rush-tag luggage from Berlin if one of Hubbard's cases hadn't been accidentally transferred to Maid of the Seas at Heathrow and ended up on the grass at Lockerbie. His other case did what it was supposed to do (transferred at Heathrow to a direct Seattle flight) and was delivered to his home in Seattle the following day. There is nothing at all to allow us to trace that case as one of the 11 presumed Berlin transfer items except for the fact that its companion became lost luggage. But once we know about that we can see that the assumption of at least three more undocumented rush-tag items transferred from the Berlin flight and unloaded at Heathrow is reasonable.

    So we have definite IDs on 10 items and presumed IDs on 13 more, though the presumption varies in certainty among that group. Two left of the 25 transfer items.

    One of these is the item that seemed to come off the Malta flight. The other is an item that seems to have come off a Lufthansa flight from Warsaw. There's no difference between these two items. Neither flight had documented luggage or any passenger for PA103.

    There is no record of the Scottish police going anywhere near Warsaw. They jumped to the conclusion that since the clothes had been bought on Malta, the undocumented item associated with the Malta flight must have been the bomb and homed in on that with absolute tunnel vision.

    However, the bomb could have been in one of the undocumented items from Berlin. It could have been in the mystery item from Warsaw. Nobody gave either possibility even the most cursory check.

  2. Ten years later, the judges decided that since the man they had decided bought the clothes was at the airport when that flight from Malta took off, then that proved the bomb had been on that flight. It probably sounded reasonable in their heads.

    But at the time the police got their tunnel vision about the Malta flight they didn't even know who Megrahi was. They didn't manage to persuade Tony Gauci to identify him as the clothes purchaser for another 18 months. The clothes were purchased at least 2 weeks before the disaster. They could have gone anywhere in that time. But still the police didn't look at Warsaw or Berlin as possible origins for that suitcase.

    The other important point here is that the bomb wasn’t in ALL the mystery items, obviously. Berlin (at least three), Warsaw, Malta. Five utterly unidentifiable transfer items, on top of the ones we’ve only been able to reconcile by guesswork. Why assume the bomb was in ANY of them? It’s not as if that item apparently from Malta is sticking out as a lone anomaly.

    If we remove the assumption that Megrahi bought the clothes then there is nothing at all to justify the belief that the bomb had anything to do with KM180, the flight from Malta that mystery item was alleged to be on. So Kenny MacAskill’s declaration that Megrahi didn’t buy the clothes actually destroys the Malta origin of the bomb, except he’s too stupid and arrogant to realise that.

    Anyway, the baggage records at Heathrow, which weren’t lost or over-written, show quite conclusively that the bomb was in the case Bedford saw in the container in the shed an hour before the connecting flight from Frankfurt arrived. So it can’t have been on the connecting flight, and therefore it wasn’t any of the 25 transfer items on the printout.

    Some people were way too reluctant to face up to the possibility that Heathrow security might be to blame for this disaster and way too keen to accept any dodgy supposition that might support the possibility that the bomb came from Frankfurt.