Friday, 21 December 2018

Lockerbie bombing 30 years on: What is the truth behind UK's deadliest terrorist atrocity?

[This is the headline over a long article in The Independent today. The following are excerpts:]

Thirty years ago on Friday the name Lockerbie became synonymous with disaster.

The grim sequel is that today, Lockerbie does not just conjure up images of tragedy. 

It brings to mind suggestions of conspiracy, of murky deals done in the diplomatic margins, of international machinations that betrayed justice, ensuring – some say – that the only person convicted in connection with the bombing, Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was an innocent man. (...)

It still took nearly 12 years before the trial of two Libyan suspects began on May 3 2000, at a specially convened tribunal, operating under Scottish law and heard by three Scottish judges without a jury, at Camp Zeist, the Netherlands.

The tortuous road to trial included the imposition of sanctions on Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, suggestions the international consensus on sanctions was collapsing, and lengthy secret negotiations between the UK, US and the Netherlands, initiated by Tony Blair’s foreign secretary Robin Cook.

The investigation that put Megrahi and alleged accomplice Lamin Khalifa Fhimah in the frame had involved interviewing 15,000 people and examining 180,000 pieces of evidence.

When the trial began in the Netherlands, Dr [Jim] Swire was convinced both men were guilty.

By the time the judges acquitted Fhimah and found Megrahi guilty on 31 January 2001, Dr Swire was convinced that the only man convicted was innocent. 

He befriended Megrahi, visiting him, exchanging Christmas cards, becoming relentless in his efforts to clear the Libyan’s name, and thus to find his daughter’s ‘real killers’. (...)

The Scottish Crown Office - backed it should be said by many American victims' families - remains sure Megrahi was a Libyan agent, a key player in a plot where an unwitting Air Malta worker checked the Samsonite onto a Frankfurt-bound flight as a favour for a “friend” in Germany, where the suitcase was routed to Heathrow, then loaded on to Pan Am 103.

Tony Gauci, whose shop Mary’s House was near Malta’s airport, identified Megrahi as the man who bought clothes from him that were later found to have been packed into the Samsonite, concealing the bomb.

But there were reports of large undisclosed payments going from the US Justice Department to Mr Gauci.

The suspicion was growing that, either by accident or cover-up, Megrahi had become the innocent fall guy who got a life sentence for mass murder.

The Libyan was described, by The Independent among others, as less secret agent and more “Tripoli airport control manager briefly assigned to Libyan intelligence for bureaucratic rather than specialist tradecraft reasons.”

Many came to believe the Lockerbie atrocity was the work of Palestinian militants, with suspicion falling in particular on the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).

The trial, for example, had heard evidence from FBI agent Edward Marshman that Jordanian bomb maker Marwan Khreesat told him he had supplied the PFLP-GC with explosive devices similar to the one used to down Pan Am 103.

By contrast there was considerable scepticism about the prosecution’s attempts to link Libya’s intelligence services to the improvised explosive device that destroyed the jet.

A fingernail-sized fragment of circuit board found in the wreckage was identified by prosecutors as being part of a timer made by contractor Thuring and sold by Swiss company Mebo to the Libyan armed forces.

But sceptics said independent analysis of the timer fragment showed it had a pure tin coating, whereas Thuring devices were covered in a tin-lead alloy.

Dr Swire came to disbelieve the official story of a bomb going from Malta to Frankfurt to London, thinking instead that the bomb had been smuggled through Heathrow and only ever travelled on one aeroplane: Pan Am 103.

One Heathrow staff member reportedly told police in January 1989 that he had seen a hard-shell Samsonite in a luggage container heading for the Boeing 747’s hold before the Frankfurt feeder flight that was supposed to have carried the bomb had even landed at the London airport.

Some accounts were prepared to accept that Libyan money might have helped fund the Palestinian militants – the US bombing raid on Tripoli in 1986 certainly gave Gaddafi plenty of motive for becoming (or continuing as) a terrorist paymaster.

But the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by a missile fired in error from a US warship in July 1988 gave another Middle East government a far more recent grievance, one that would have made targeting American civilian air passengers particularly appealing.

Whatever the truth, the conflicting accounts and the seeming entanglement with Middle Eastern intrigue left many with the sense that Lockerbie had become a decidedly murky affair. (...)

In 2015 Scottish prosecutors effectively re-opened the Lockerbie investigation by naming two Libyans they wanted to talk to: Abdullah al-Senussi, Gaddaffi’s brother-in-law and formerly a senior Libyan intelligence official, and Abu Agila Masud, a man believed to have bomb-making skills.

Both men are in jail in Libya.  Scottish and American prosecutors are said to be hopeful they will be allowed, despite the chaos now bedevilling Libya, to talk to the two suspects. 

A report in this week’s Times suggested prosecutors were “closing in” on their two targets.  The response from the Libyan government – or at least the UN-backed version of it – was said to have been “positive and constructive”.

Megrahi’s family, meanwhile, has launched a fresh appeal against his conviction to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC).

When he died in 2012, his brother Abdulhakim said: “Just because Abdulbaset is dead doesn’t mean the past is now erased.  We will always tell the world my brother was innocent.”

For his part, Dr Swire described the death of his friend as “a very sad event”.  He praised the way that Megrahi, even when dying and in great pain, had sought to pass on the information amassed by his defence team.

Dr Swire himself is now 82.

Thirty years on from being called from his study to watch a TV news bulletin that changed his life, he is still searching for simple, undisputed truth about what happened to his daughter and 269 others.

Given what we now know about Lockerbie, it seems rash to assume that anyone will ever find it.

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