Friday, 30 June 2017

The evidence I had been listening to couldn't lead to that verdict

[What follows is excerpted from a long article profiling Jim and Jane Swire that was published in The Herald on this date in 2007:]

Last Thursday's ruling that the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing can appeal for a second time means Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi may soon return home to his wife and children. "He belongs back at home with his family," says Jim, who - along with Jane - has long been convinced of Megrahi's innocence. (...)

Flora Swire was training to be a neurosurgeon when she met young American doctor Hart Lidov. She began commuting regularly across the Atlantic to see him and, just before Christmas, decided on a whim to fly to New York so they could spend the holiday together. (...)

When the news first broke on television, the Swires tried to quell rising panic with a conviction that it couldn't be her plane - the timing didn't match the details she had given.But as they realised it had been delayed, the terrible truth hit.

"When that bomb went off it turned all our lives upside down," says Jim simply, and trails off as Jane takes over: "It changes your attitude to everything. You never quite learn to live with it. Well, you do your best, but it changes you. It's one of the worst nightmares any parent can have, to lose their precious child."

Blindly, the couple stumbled through those early days of realisation. Jane was driven by a desperate determination to hold their remaining family - including 16-year-old son William and 19-year-old daughter Cathy - together. But with questions imploding in his mind, Jim was rapidly forming a conviction: that the only way to make sense of his daughter's death was to find out exactly what had happened, and who was responsible.

Within weeks, Jim Swire's craggy charismatic face, mane of white hair, and quiet, dignified air had become familiar to news viewers and newspaper readers, as he took up the role of spokesman for the victims' families' campaign. He shored up information as if it were a shield that could protect him from the horror of what had happened, and flew around the world to meet experts, attend conferences and shed light on the shady world of international terrorism. Each answer led to another question. He hadn't meant to go so far. "I would never have dreamed that I would set out on an 18-year campaign," he admits now. "But I found - still find - the whole business of not unravelling who killed her, or why she wasn't protected, an insult to her memory. It means she didn't matter. She was just cannon fodder and happened to be in the way when something ghastly happened. And I can't take that line."

He was, he notes drily, ideally equipped for the journey. After graduating from Cambridge, where he met his wife, he joined the army and learned about plastic explosives and detonating bombs. A brief spell with the BBC before he became a doctor provided insight into the workings of the media organisations that would later prove so useful to his campaign.

When the suspects were named he pushed unwaveringly for a trial, flying three times to Tripoli to meet Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, convinced he could get him on side. "You might not think there was any common ground between a GP from the Midlands and an army colonel turned dictator based in an Arab country. But there was," he smiles faintly. "He had lost his adopted daughter Hannah when she was just 15 months old, when the US bombed Tripoli in 1986. I took a book of pictures of Flora, making sure there was one of her at just that age."

He enjoys telling the stories about James Bond-style meetings in Gaddafi's headquarters: describing a journey in a blacked-out Mercedes; recalling the way the portcullis in the wall opened as if by magic, the steel teeth of the security gate, Gaddafi's all-female team of bodyguards, who released their gun catches in unison when he approached the Libyan leader to pin a badge proclaiming "Pan Am 103 - the truth must be known" on his flowing green robes. (...)

In 2001, Jim got what he wanted - a trial, to be held under Scottish law in the Dutch town of Zeist. Before leaving for Holland, the couple watched on television as Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, his co-accused, arrived (Fhimah was cleared).

"When I saw these two people being led from the plane, the feeling was so emotional," says Jane, "the twist in my gut, as I watched the men I thought were responsible for my daughter's death. We believed this was the trial that would lead to some sort of resolution. It would spell justice. But it would never bring Flora back. And the who, when, why and what were questions that had always been so much more important to Jim than they were to me. I was just busy trying to come to terms with the loss of my Flora."

Her husband leans forward, his voice low. "Now Jane, but you also accept that it was my way of coping."

She nods. "Well, yes, but it couldn't ever have been mine. I had to step away, to care for the rest of my family." She swallows, then adds: "But in essence, what Jim has done is something to approve of. Many people weren't keen for this to happen. Someone needed to fight."

Jim Swire's fight was certainly not universally popular. There was hate mail - "really nasty stuff", he confides - and criticism from many of the American victims' relatives, who saw things in more black-and-white terms.

For Jim those complexities became all too clear as he sat, day after day, in the courtroom, realising with slow, sinking disappointment that he could not contain the nagging doubts that these men had nothing to do with the atrocity that killed his daughter. As he listened to the evidence he grew less and less convinced of its authenticity. "When I went to that trial I thought I was going to watch the trial and conviction of the two guys who had murdered my daughter. But what I heard there led me to peel away from the belief that this was going to reveal the truth."

When the verdict was finally read out, Jim Swire collapsed. "I just couldn't conceive that they could have found him guilty," he says, extending his bony fingers in a gesture of bewilderment. "I fainted with shock. I went to Eton: I was taught to question things, not to accept them at face value.

"But my education also drummed into me to be respectful of authority. Those judges in their regalia - with all the pomp and circumstance, and the helicopters bringing them in and out - were very impressive, so I respected them. The fact that I believed they had strength and integrity only made it worse when they pronounced him guilty. Because the evidence I had been listening to surely couldn't lead to that verdict."

Back in England, Jane was also struggling. "I really wanted that conviction to be right," she admits. But try as she might for Flora's sake, she couldn't believe in it. Now, with another appeal and new evidence on the horizon, the couple feel the truth may be closer once again.

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