Sunday 1 February 2015

Conviction unsafe and unsatisfactory

[On 31 January 2001, Abdelbaset Megrahi was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. Here is something that I wrote on 1 February:]

The Reasons for Convicting Megrahi

In paragraph 89 of the Opinion of the Court the judges say: “We are aware that in relation to certain aspects of the case there are a number of uncertainties and qualifications.  We are also aware that there is a danger that by selecting parts of the evidence which seem to fit together and ignoring parts which might not fit, it is possible to read into a mass of conflicting evidence a pattern or conclusion which is not really justified.”

The danger may have been recognised.  But it has not been avoided.

i.    Who was the purchaser of the clothing and when did he do it?
The judges held it proved (a) that it was Megrahi who bought from Mary’s House in Malta the clothes and umbrella which were in the suitcase with the bomb and (b) that the date of purchase was 7 December 1988 (when Megrahi was on Malta) and not 23 November 1988 (when he was not).
As regards (a), the most that the Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, would say (either in his evidence in court or in a series of police statements) was that Megrahi “resembled a lot” the purchaser, a phrase which he equally used with reference to Abu Talb, one of those named in the special defence of incrimination lodged on behalf of Megrahi.  Gauci had also described the purchaser to the police as being six feet tall and over 50 years of age. The evidence at the trial established (i) that Megrahi is 5 feet 8 inches tall and (ii) that in late 1988 he was 36 years of age.  On this material the judges found in fact that Megrahi was the purchaser.

As regards (b), the evidence of Tony Gauci was that when the purchaser left his shop it was raining (or at least drizzling) to such an extent that his customer thought it advisable to buy an umbrella  to protect himself while he went in search of a taxi. The unchallenged meteorological evidence established that while it had rained on 23 November at the relevant time, it was unlikely that it had rained at all on 7 December, and if it had it would have been only a few drops, insufficient to wet the street.  On this material, the judges found in fact that the clothes were purchased on 7 December.

ii.    Did the bomb start from Malta?
The judges held it proved that there was a piece of unaccompanied baggage on Flight KM 180 from Malta to Frankfurt on 21 December 1988 which was then carried on to Heathrow.  The evidence supporting that finding was a computer printout which could be interpreted to indicate that a piece of baggage went through the particular luggage coding station at Frankfurt used for baggage from KM 180 and was routed towards the feeder flight to Heathrow, at a time consistent with its having been offloaded from KM 180.

Against this, the evidence from Malta Airport was to the effect that there was no unaccompanied bag on that flight to Frankfurt.  All luggage on that flight was accounted for.  The number of bags loaded into the hold matched the number of bags checked in (and subsequently collected) by the passengers on the aircraft.  The court nevertheless held it proved that there had been a piece of unaccompanied baggage on Flight KM 180.

iii.   Where did the fragment of timer come from?
An important link to Libya in the evidence was a fragment of circuit board from a MST-13 timer manufactured by MeBo. Timers of this model were supplied predominantly to Libya (though a few did go elsewhere, such as to the Stasi in East Germany).  This fragment is also important since it is the only piece of evidence that indicates that the Lockerbie bomb was detonated by a stand-alone timing mechanism, as distinct from a short-term timer triggered by a barometric device, of the type displayed in the bombs and equipment found at Neuss in the Autumn Leaves operation.  The provenance of this vitally important piece of evidence was challenged by the defence, and in their written Opinion the judges accept that in a number of respects this fragment, for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, was not dealt with by the investigators and forensic scientists in the same way as other pieces of electronic circuit board (of which there were many).  The judges say that they are satisfied that there is no sinister reason for the differential treatment. But they do not find it necessary enlighten us regarding the reasons for their satisfaction.

These are some of the many factors that lead me to be astonished that the court found itself able to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of the guilt of Megrahi, and which equally convince me that his conviction is unsafe and unsatisfactory.

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