Sunday 10 January 2021

Private Eye on the Masud charges

[What follows is the text of an article that appears in the latest edition of Private Eye:]

Late charges 

The parting shot by US attorney-general William Barr just before Christmas that another Libyan, Abu Agila Masud, was to be charged over the Lockerbie bombing will have delighted Scotland's prosecutors. The Crown Office is nervously awaiting the outcome of a posthumous appeal against the copviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 atrocity, which killed 270 people. 

The case against Megrahi was always riddled with holes, and since his 2001 conviction more evidence - some withheld from his trial - has emerged to cast further doubt (Eyes passim). Last March the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred his case back to the appeal court on the basis that no reasonable court could have reached a guilty verdict "beyond all reasonable doubt" and significant non-disclosure of evidence. 

Both grounds related to the damning evidence of the key prosecution witness, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who said Megrahi resembled a man who bought the clothes found wrapped around the bomb. It subsequently emerged that Gauci was paid $2m by the US Department of Justice (DoJ). But other troubling evidence was excluded from the appeal. That included forensic material suggesting that a circuit board fragment found at the scene could not have originated from the batch of timers said to incriminate Libya and Megrahi, and new evidence indicating that the bomb almost certainly originated from Heathrow rather than Malta (adding to the fact of a break-in at Heathrow the night before the flight).  

Masud, the third Libyan to be charged (Lamin Fhimah who stood trial alongside Megrahi, was acquitted), is now said to be the Lockerbie bombmaker. He is also alleged to have made the bomb for the 1986 La Belle Disco attack in Berlin, which killed two US servicemen and a Turkish woman.  

The new charges are based on an investigation by American film-maker Ken Dornstein,  who lost his brother m the Lockerbie bombing, and on an affidavit by an FBI agent, which describes a confession allegedly made by Masud to "a Libyan law enforcement officer". That "confession" names Megrahi, a fellow intelligence officer, as a co-conspirator. It dates from 2012, when Masud was in prison awaiting trial for making booby-trapped bombs for use against opponents of the Gaddafi regime, which fell in 2011. As it came during a time of revenge and score-settling, key questions will be what side the Libyan law officer was on and under what circumstances the confession was made. 

US prosecutors might also seek to rely on a key witness in Dornstein's documentary, Musbah Eter, a Libyan former diplomat who was convicted in 2001 of the La Belle bombing. He claims Masud told him he was involved in Lockerbie. However, as declassified East German Stasi documents revealed, Eter has a credibility problem - not least because he was a CIA "asset" who had never previously claimed any knowledge of Lockerbie. 

Nevertheless, the news has received a guarded welcome by those convinced of Megrahi's innocence. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the blast, would like any evidence properly tested in open court to try to get to the truth about Lockerbie and what US and UK investigators knew. But he tells the Eye that if the case is linked to Megrahi and Malta it is already fatally flawed. 

The DoJ has been sitting on Masud's damning confession and evidence gathered by Dornstein for years, so why did it wait until last month before charging Masud? Might the answer be, as Swire suggests, that it is Barr's attempt to salvage his own credibility? Or, as those representing Megrahi's family believe, a timely attempt to add to the already considerable pressure on the Scottish appeal judges to uphold the only conviction? 

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