With great fanfare, on the anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, the US has announced charges against the supposed bomb maker who blew up Pan Am flight 103, the worst act of terrorism in this country, with 270 lives lost.
One of William Barr’s final acts as Donald Trump’s Attorney General, a deeply controversial tenure, is supposed to fit one of the final pieces of the jigsaw in the hunt for the killers.
There are historic links between the Lockerbie investigation and the current, turbulent chapter of American politics. Barr was also the Attorney General in 1991, in the George W Bush administration, when charges were laid against two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, over the bombing. The inquiry was led at the time by Robert Mueller, the head of the Department of Justice’s criminal division.
Mueller, of course, became the Special Counsel who examined if Trump was the Muscovian candidate for the White House. Barr was the Attorney General, in his second term in the post, accused of distorting the findings of Mueller’s report to protect Trump from accusations of obstruction of justice, which he denies.
The charges which have been laid against Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, another Libyan, are intrinsically connected to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is the only person to have been found guilty by a court of the bombing.
Megrahi is now dead. There are good reasons to hold that the investigation, trial and verdict which brought his conviction were flawed and a miscarriage of justice has taken place. This is a view shared by bereaved families, international jurists, intelligence officers and journalists who had followed the case.
Last month, an appeal hearing began at the High Court in Edinburgh to posthumously clear Megrahi’s name. This was the third appeal in the attempt to prove that the verdict against him was unsound, with his legal team focusing on the veracity of the prosecution evidence at his trial.
Much of the case against Masud, a former Libyan intelligence officer, now charged, comes from an alleged confession he made in jail, where he had ended up after the fall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Masud, according to the FBI, named Megrahi and Fhimah as co-conspirators, who had together manufactured an explosive device using Semtex during a trip to Malta. Masud has said that he had bought the clothing which had been wrapped around the bomb, hidden in a radio-cassette player, before being placed in a Samsonite suitcase which was put on the flight.
There are two points which are immediately relevant. The same trial which convicted Megrahi had acquitted Fhimah of all charges. And one of the key allegations against Megrahi, which the judges said made them decide on the verdict of guilt, was that it was he who had bought the clothing put around the explosive device.
These contradictions are among many, big and small, which have marked the official narrative presented by the US and UK authorities of what lay behind the downing of the airliner.
I went to Lockerbie on the night of the bombing, attended the trial of the two Libyan defendants, and met Megrahi at his home in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where he had been allowed to return after suffering from cancer. I have followed the twists and turns of the case throughout.
Soon after the downing of the Pan Am flight, American and British security officials began laying the blame on an Iran-Syria axis. The scenario was that Tehran had taken out a contract in revenge for the destruction of an Iranian civilian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, which had been shot down by missiles fired from an American warship, the USS Vincennes, a few months earlier. The theory went that the contract had been taken up by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which specialised in such operations.
But the blame switched to Libya, then very much a pariah state, around the time Iran and Syria joined the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Robert Baer, the former American intelligence officer and author, was among those who held that the Iranian sponsored hit was the only plausible explanation for the attack. This was the firm belief held “to a man”, he stated, by his former colleagues in the CIA.
After years of wrangling, Megrahi, the former head of security at Libyan Airlines and allegedly in the Libyan security service, and Fhimah, allegedly a fellow intelligence officer, were finally extradited in 1999. (...)
The two men were charged with joint enterprise and conspiracy. Yet only Megrahi was found guilty. (...)
So, deprived of finding a partner in crime for Megrahi, the prosecutor switched to claiming, and the judges accepting, that he had conspired with himself.
The prosecution evidence was circumstantial; details of the bomb timer on the plane were contradictory; and the testimony of a key witness, a Maltese shopkeeper, extremely shaky under cross-examination. Five years on from the trial, the former Lord Advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmville – who had been responsible for initiating the Lockerbie prosecution – described the witness, Tony Gauci, as “an apple short of a picnic” and “not quite the full shilling”. Gauci was, however, flush in dollars: the Americans paid him for his testimony.
The performance and evidence of a supposedly prime “CIA intelligence asset”, Abdul Majid Giaka, codenamed “Puzzle Piece” who turned up in a Shirley Bassey wig, was widely viewed as risible. It emerged later that important evidence had not been passed on to the defence lawyers. Ulrich Lumpert, an engineer who testified to the validity of a key piece of evidence, admitted later in an affidavit of lying to the court.
It has also emerged that Giaka had been described by his CIA handler, John Holt, in an official report as someone who had a “history of making up stories”.
Holt was denied permission to appear at court. Earlier this month he reiterated in an interview that, like his CIA colleagues, he believes the Libyan connection was a concocted red herring and culpability lay with PFLP (GC). "I would start by asking the current Attorney General, William Barr, why he suddenly switched focus in 1991, when he was also Attorney General, from where clear evidence was leading, toward a much less likely scenario involving Libyans”, he said.
The observer for the UN at the trial, Hans Kochler severely criticised the verdict. Writing later in The Independent, he described a case based on “circumstantial evidence”; the “lack of credibility” of key prosecution witnesses who “had incentives to bear false witness against Megrahi”; the fact that one was paid cash by the Americans; and that “so much key information was withheld from the trial”.
Robert Black, a law professor born in Lockerbie, who played an important role in organising the Camp Zeist proceedings, later became convinced that a great injustice had taken place, as have many other eminent jurists.
Some who were in Lockerbie on that terrible night and dealt with the aftermath also felt the same way. Father Patrick Keegans, the parish priest at the time, joined the “Justice for Megrahi” campaign after meeting the convicted man’s family and has backed appeals to clear his name.
Many members of the bereaved families feel that justice has not been done, among them Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the bombing and became a spokesman for “UK Families 103”.
When there were objections to the severely ill Megrahi being allowed to return to Tripoli, he pointed out “the scandal around Megrahi is not that a sick man was released, but that he was even convicted in the first place. All I have ever wanted to see is that the people who murdered my daughter are brought to justice.”
After the charging of Masud, Dr Swire said: “I'm all in favour of whatever he's got to tell us being examined in a court, of course I am. The more people who look at the materials we have available the better.”
He wanted to stress: “There are only two things that we seek, really. One is the question of why those lives were not protected in view of all the warnings and the second is: what does our government and the American government really know about who is responsible for murdering them.”
Some bereaved families have criticised the presentation and motivation of the US move. The State Department had sent an invitation for livestreaming of the event.
Reverend John Mosey, who lost his 19-year-old daughter Helga in the bombing, said the “timing and particularly the choice of this specific day, which is special to many of us, to be bizarre, disrespectful, insensitive and extremely ill considered”. He added: “Why exactly, when the Attorney General is about to leave office, has he waited 32 years to bring charges?”
Behind the controversy over who carried out the attack, the political manoeuvres and legal actions, lay the human tragedy of Lockerbie, a scene which is difficult to forget, even after three decades, for many of us who went there. (...)
There is also the memory of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, at his home in Tripoli in 2012. He lay in his bed attached to a drip, on red sheets stained by dark splashes of blood he had coughed up. An oxygen mask covered his skeletal face; his body twitched as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He was in the advanced stages of cancer: medicine he desperately needed had been plundered by looters; the doctors who had been treating him had fled. He died a few months later.
The bitter accusations and recriminations over Lockerbie are unlikely to cease. But the search for justice for this terrible act of violence which took so many lives, and caused so much pain and grief, continues to remain elusive among the secrets and lies.