Monday, 18 June 2018

The case that never goes away

[What follows is the text of a talk given by Dr Morag Kerr on Saturday, 16 June 2018 at a rally at Inch Park, Edinburgh:]

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster, the case that never goes away.

I've heard people say, drop it, it's history.  But it's not much longer ago than Hillsborough, and that was only resolved to public satisfaction very recently.  And I personally have an aversion to a false narrative going down in history.  Other people feel the same way, including people personally impacted by the atrocity, and that's why we still have active campaigns.

Why is it that there's still so much concern about Lockerbie?Fundamentally, because the verdict in 2001 never made any sense.  As the court proceedings unfolded the prosecution case appeared to be falling apart.  The evidence against the accused was far far weaker than the public had been led to believe and credible alternative culprits and lines of inquiry had never been properly investigated.  The guilty verdict against Abdelbaset al-Megrahi came as a genuine shock to many informed observers, and their concerns have never been laid to rest.

Two separate but parallel campaigns have been going on for the last few years, and both are seeing significant developments unfolding.  First, there is the application by Megrahi's family for a posthumous appeal against his conviction.

This case has already had two appeals come to court.  The first appeal, the automatic one immediately after the conviction, was brought on the wrong grounds by Megrahi's inept advocate, and was dismissed essentially on a string of technicalities.  The second appeal was the result of a prolonged investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission and it came to court in 2009.  But by that time Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and was anxious to return home to his family before he died, and he formally abandoned that appeal immediately before he was granted compassionate release.

This introduced a legal controversy.  Megrahi himself and his legal team maintained that he had withdrawn the appeal to make it more likely that compassionate release would be granted.  Kenny MacAskill denied having made that a condition of granting compassionate release.  When Megrahi's family applied to the SCCRC for a third appeal, the point that had to be decided was, how many bites at the cherry is anybody allowed to have?  The appellant abandoned his appeal voluntarily, so why should another be allowed?

The SCCRC's decision on this was reported last month.  They accepted that Megrahi withdrew the appeal because he believed it would improve his chances of being allowed to go home, and that it wasn't in any way a capitulation or an admission of guilt.  They have therefore decided to carry out a full evaluation of the new application from his family.  I anticipate that this will result in a third appeal being allowed and going to court.

The second campaign is an initiative by the pressure group Justice for Megrahi, of which I'm secretary depute.  The JFM committee includes retired senior lawyers and a retired senior police officer as well as relatives of Lockerbie victims, so we have a lot of expertise to call on.  Back in 2012 when the prospects of getting a third appeal to court were looking remote, we had a look at other options to force the authorities to look again at the case.  The thing is, you can't just go to the police or the Crown Office and say, look, here's why I think you got this wrong, you must reconsider.  It doesn't work like that.  What you can do, is force the police to look at the case again by making formal allegations of criminality against other people, which they are then duty bound to investigate.

I'm not talking about allegations against alternative suspects, but against people involved in the original investigation and the trial at Camp Zeist.  We had very good reason to believe that significant shenanigans had taken place at both stages of the proceedings, and that we had sufficient evidence to compel the police to investigate this seriously.  Eventually we submitted nine separate allegations to the authorities, backed up with credible evidence in each case.  These included police misconduct, forensic fraud and/or criminal negligence, perjury, and attempts to pervert the course of justice.

Now of course talk is cheap and anyone can allege anything, but if there had been no substance to our allegations the police could have disposed of them quickly with very little trouble.  That's what they thought they were going to do, at first.  However it was eventually realised that there was serious substance to what we were saying, and in 2014 a dedicated Police Scotland investigation was set up, codenamed Operation Sandwood.  I think the fact that it has taken these detectives four years to finalise their report says a lot about how well-founded our position is, and how thorough the investigation has been.

It seems likely that the Operation Sandwood report will be submitted to the Crown Office before the SCCRC is ready to report, but I don't really know how much longer it will be for either of them.  Both reports will be confidential and will not automatically be made public, so we're going to have to do a fair bit of reading between the lines.

Although the two investigations are separate, they are essentially investigating the same thing -- the evidence in the Lockerbie case.   There's a huge amount of that, but systematic analysis boils it down to three critical points, only two of which specifically incriminate Megrahi.

The first of these is the identification evidence.  Clothes packed in the suitcase with the bomb were traced to their manufacturer, and from there to the shop where they were sold.  Amazingly the shopkeeper remembered selling more than one of these items to a customer, and he had some recollection of what that man looked like.  The prosecution alleged that it was Megrahi who had bought these clothes.

The first SCCRC report detailed six grounds on which the commission believed it was possible that a miscarriage of justice had occurred, and all of these related to the clothes purchase.  It seems to me inevitable that the new SCCRC investigation will have to allow a new appeal on these grounds if nothing else.  However, we hardly need to wait for the SCCRC on that one.  Kenny MacAskill has already, belatedly, conceded the point.  In his recent book and again in press articles, he agrees that Megrahi was not the man who bought the clothes.

In fact that's all it should take to overturn the conviction entirely.  If he didn't buy the clothes the case against him falls apart in logic.  However, Kenny doesn't see it that way, and pins his continued assertion that Megrahi was involved in the bombing on the second main point which appears to incriminate him, the fact that he was present at the airport when the bomb was smuggled on board the plane.  This also seems to be the fall-back position of the Crown Office.  Well, maybe someone else bought the clothes, but Megrahi was there when the crime took place and he was a Libyan security agent so go figure.

That aspect of the case is my own personal speciality.  Was Megrahi present at the scene of the crime?  There's no doubt he was at the airport in Malta that morning, catching a short-hop flight back to Tripoli after an overnight business trip to Malta.  The question is, was that actually the scene of the crime?  There was no evidence at all that security at Malta airport was breached that morning, no evidence that an illicit, unaccompanied suitcase was smuggled on to the flight to Frankfurt, and considerable evidence that no such thing actually happened.  Exactly how the prosecution managed to persuade the judges that it had happened is one of the enduring conundrums of the Lockerbie saga.

The Crown case depends absolutely on their preferred modus operandi, the story of the suitcase that was smuggled on to an aircraft in the morning on Malta, was transferred automatically through the baggage transfer system at Frankfurt without anyone realising that there was no passenger attached to it, and was then in due course transferred to the transatlantic airliner Maid of the Seas at Heathrow.  It was the transatlantic leg that blew up over Lockerbie.

However, as I said, there's no evidence at all of that suitcase being present at Malta airport, and the evidence from Frankfurt that was used to assert that it must have been there is tenuous beyond belief.  It's only when you look at the evidence from Heathrow itself that things get a lot clearer.  To cut a long story short, there is clear and incontrovertible evidence that the bomb suitcase was already in the baggage container at Heathrow a full hour before the connecting flight from Frankfurt landed.  This evidence was available to the investigation at an early stage, but it appears the investigating officers simply didn't want to know.  The amount of effort expended in ignoring that suitcase is quite remarkable.

But once that is accepted, Megrahi really is exonerated.  This smear of "well maybe he didn't buy the clothes but he was there when the bomb was smuggled on board the plane so obviously he was involved" simply doesn't stand up.  He was 1,500 miles away at the time -- the distance from London to Tripoli.

The Crown Office case simply collapses.  It's not a situation where the crime has been more or less solved but there just isn't enough admissible evidence to get a conviction to stick, the Lockerbie investigation was up a gum tree almost from the beginning. Despite clear and compelling evidence that Heathrow was the scene of the crime, the police chased a red herring down a blind alley to Malta, and refused to think again even when prolonged investigation there turned up no sign of the bomb.

This admission would be hugely embarrassing for the legal establishment.  Millions of pounds spent on an investigation that was investigating the wrong airports.  An entire country ruined by punitive sanctions imposed on the assumption that its nationals were guilty of the atrocity.  Millions more spent on that three-ring-circus of a trial.

So I think we can anticipate some pretty strenuous resistance to this finding.  I expect the SCCRC to be pressurised to confine their investigation to the original six grounds of appeal, which were all about the clothes purchase, and not to extend their remit to the route of the bomb suitcase or indeed to the third point of contention, the identity of the fragment of printed circuit board that was alleged to have been part of the bomb's timing mechanism.

I also expect the Crown Office to try to bury the Sandwood report into our allegations of criminality.  There's an unavoidable weakness there.  The stratagem that we had to use was to accuse individuals of criminal offences in the course of these matters being wrongly investigated and wrongly presented to the court.  However, even if Operation Sandwood agrees with us on all three main headings -- that Megrahi was not the man who bought the clothes, that the bomb was introduced at Heathrow not Malta, and that the fragment of circuit board was not what the prosecution said it was -- it's quite possible that no actual prosecutions will result.

The people involved are now quite elderly, in their seventies or older.  Some of them are dead.  John Orr, the first senior investigating officer assigned to the case, who was prominent in turning a blind eye to the Heathrow evidence, died about four months ago.  Even if Operation Sandwood concludes that there is credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing as opposed to blind incompetence, it's not impossible that a decision might be taken that prosecutions are not in the public interest.

So I'm somewhat prepared for the announcement that no prosecutions are to be brought as a result of the Operation Sandwood investigation.  That, in my opinion, will not be good enough.  The public paid for that investigation, and the public is entitled to know the broad outcome of its inquiry into the facts.  Does the Sandwood report accept that the witness Tony Gauci was groomed and pressurised into identifying Megrahi as the man who bought the clothes, even though he looked absolutely nothing like him?  Does it agree that the Lockerbie bomb started its journey in the late afternoon at Heathrow airport, not in the morning on Malta?  And does it agree that the scrap of printed circuit board, whatever it was, was never part of one of the timers in the batch that was sold to Libya?

We may have to wait for the third appeal coming to court to get to the bottom of all this, but these are the questions that the public, and in particular journalists, should be asking.

Now if anyone wants to hear a lot more detail about this, I will be giving a longer, illustrated talk on the evidence at the Yes Hub in a couple of weeks time, and there will be more opportunity for questions, and you won't have to stand in the rain to do it.  But if anyone has anything they want to ask now, fire away.

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