Monday, 17 December 2018

Three decades on and so many questions remain

[This is part of the headline over a long report by Chris Marshall in today's edition of The Scotsman. It reads in part:]

Thirty years on since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, there remains as many questions as there have been answers about what took place that night.

From the bombing itself – the deadliest terrorist atrocity ever carried out in Britain – to the trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands and the jailing and subsequent release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the night of 21 December, 1988 has come to define much that has happened since.

And while there are those satisfied of Megrahi’s guilt, there are others convinced of his innocence, and others still who believe the full truth of what took place may never be known. (...)

The youngest victim onboard the plane was two-month-old Brittany Williams, of New York; the oldest, Ibolya Gabor, 79, from Budapest, Hungary, who had survived two world wars and was travelling to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with her family. Other passengers included Bernt Carlsson, 50, the UN Commissioner for Namibia and Matthew Gannon, the CIA’s deputy station chief in Beirut.

There were a number of claims of responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, some far more credible than others.

A painstaking investigation carried out by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary and the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) set about reconstructing the plane from fragments of wreckage scattered across more than 2,000 square kilometres.

The murder inquiry would see officers travel to 23 different countries, identifying victims, speaking to witnesses and gathering evidence.

From the wreckage, fragments of a Samsonite suitcase were recovered which it was thought had been used to conceal the bomb.

Clothing from the same suitcase was found to have come from a shop in Malta owned by Tony Gauci, who later would controversially identify Megrahi as the man who had bought the items.

Megrahi, an intelligence officer, had a role as chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, allowing him regular travel to Malta where the company had an office. It was here, prosecutors would later argue, that Megrahi bought the clothing used to help hide the bomb which was to bring down Pan Am Flight 103. Using fake passports [RB "coded" not "fake"], he was also able to travel to Zurich where the timer for the bomb was made. [RB: The only evidence at the trial that Megrahi was an intelligence officer came from Majid Giaka, whose evidence on every other issue was dismissed by the court as utterly unworthy of credit. The court gave no reason for accepting his testimony on this one point.] 

The police investigation, which had taken around 15,000 witness statements, eventually led to Libya, and both Megrahi and his compatriot, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted for the bombing by the Lord Advocate and US attorney-general in 1991.

It was to be a further eight years, however, amid heavy pressure in the form of UN sanctions, before Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to hand over the two men for trial. [RB: The Libyan Government had never objected to the suspects standing trial in Scotland. It was the lawyers for the suspects -- Libyan and international, including Scottish -- who objected. The true story of how the Zeist trial came about can be read here.]

After protracted negotiations, it was decided the two Libyans would be tried under Scots law, but at a neutral location. Nelson Mandela met with Jim Swire, who became a spokesman for the UK families, and helped broker the deal. A former US Air Force base at Camp Zeist near Utrecht in the Netherlands was chosen and the trial got under way on 3 May, 2000 – nearly 12 years after the bombing.

On 31 January the following year, Megrahi was convicted of murder by a panel of three Scottish judges and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years behind bars. Fhimah was acquitted. But if observers thought that was to be the end of the legal case, they were wrong – it was only just beginning. (...)

An initial legal appeal was refused, but in September 2003 Megrahi applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) asking for a review of his conviction. Nearly four years later, the SCCRC announced it would be referring the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal after it found Megrahi “may have suffered a miscarriage of justice”.

The Libyan applied to have the appeal dropped, however, shortly before it emerged he was to be controversially released on compassionate grounds by then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Despite a doctor’s assessment that Megrahi, who had terminal prostate cancer, had only three months to live, he would survive for a further three years after his return to Libyan, his life reportedly extended by a drug which at that point was not available to Scottish cancer sufferers on the NHS.

Despite Megrahi’s death, attempts continue to overturn his conviction. Earlier this year, the SCCRC began reviewing his conviction for a second time, saying it believed Megrahi had abandoned his earlier appeal because he thought it would result in him being released from prison and allowed to return home to Libya.

Back in Lockerbie, only the memorials to the dead remain as visible signs of the terror that came from the skies one December night 30 years ago. But while the houses of Sherwood Crescent have been rebuilt and life has gone on, the story appears far from finished.

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