Friday, 19 June 2015

Foreign Office assumed Libyans would be acquitted

[This is the headline over an article by Richard Norton-Taylor published in The Guardian on this date in 2001. It reads as follows:]

On January 31, after an eight-month trial, three Scottish judges, sitting in a special court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, found a Libyan intelligence officer, Ali Al-Megrahi, guilty of the Lockerbie bombing - Britain's biggest mass murder - acquitting his colleague, Khalifa Fhimah.

Two days earlier, senior Foreign Office officials briefed a group of journalists in London. They painted a picture of a bright new chapter in Britain's relations with Colonel Gadafy's regime. They made it quite clear they assumed both the Libyans in the dock would be acquitted.

The FO officials were not alone. Most independent observers believed it was impossible for the court to find the prosecution had proved its case against Megrahi beyond reasonable doubt.

It was not only the lack of hard evidence - something the judges admitted in their lengthy judgment. The case was entwined, if the judges were right, in a sequence of remarkable coincidences.

Doubts about the prosecution's case and the judges' verdict are spelled out in Cover-Up of Convenience, published this week. Two journalists, John Ashton and Ian Ferguson, examine in detail what Paul Foot has already succinctly written in Private Eye's special report, Lockerbie, The Flight from Justice.

For more than a year, western intelligence agencies pointed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril. It is not hard to see why. Two months before the Lockerbie disaster, German police arrested members of the PFLP-GC near Frankfurt where, according to the prosecution, the bag containing the bomb was placed on the Pan Am airliner.

Among those arrested was Marwan Khreesat, who was found with explosives and a Toshiba cassette player similar to the one said to have contained the bomb. Khreesat was released. It was later revealed he was a Jordanian double agent.

The Jordanians did not allow him to appear as a witness at the trial. Instead, he was interviewed by an FBI agent, Edward Marshman. Marshman described how Khreesat told him how he infiltrated the PFLP-GC, how a second Toshiba bomb had gone missing, and about his contacts with another member of Jibril's group, Abu Elias, said to be an expert in airline security.

Elias is mentioned in a report written by Mobdi Goben, another member of the PFLP-GC, shortly before he died. The Goben memorandum claims Elias planted the bomb in the luggage of Khalid Jaafar, a Lebanese American passenger allegedly involved in a CIA-approved heroin-smuggling operation. The luggage used for these operations, it is claimed, bypassed normal security screening.

The prosecution asked a "foreign government", believed to be Syria, to hand over information about Goben's allegations. Syria refused. Syria was central to the original explanation. This was that the bombing was funded by Iran in retaliation for the mistaken shooting down of an Iranian airliner by an American warship, the USS Vincennes, over the Persian Gulf in July 1988.

There is a widespread view that the US and Britain changed their tack when they badly needed Syria's support, and Iran's quiescence, for the Gulf war after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. They thus fingered the two Libyans, insisting they placed the bomb in an unaccompanied bag at Malta's Luqa airport, where it was transferred to the Pan Am plane at Frankfurt. An earlier Palestinian suspect, Abu Talb, had also visited Malta. He was later held in Sweden on terrorist charges and identified by the British as a prime suspect.

You don't have to look for conspiracies - maybe Jaafar's presence on the plane has an entirely innocent explanation - to question the prosecution's version of events. US authorities issued a series of specific warnings about a bomb threat before Lockerbie. These, and intelligence reports implicating Iran, were dismissed as speculative or hoaxes.

The evidence of Tony Gauci, the Maltese shop owner was extremely shaky. He was uncertain about dates and the weather that day. He told the police the purchaser was "six foot or more" and over 50. Megrahi was five foot eight inches and 37 at the time.

According to Ashton and Ferguson, replica MST-13 timers - implicating Megrahi but only presented as evidence after a long delay - were manufactured by the CIA but that information was not passed to the defence. The evidence of Abdul Giaka, a Libyan who defected to the CIA and star prosecution witness, was described by the judges as "at best exaggerated, at worst simply untrue".

The judgment is littered with assumptions and criticisms of prosecution witnesses. They refer to a "mass of conflicting evidence". Megrahi has lodged an appeal. The Scottish appeal judges surely owe it to the victims' families to explain the string of unanswered questions.

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