The appearance of Agila Mohammad Masud al Marimi in an American court last month after being held captive in Libya has been portrayed as a vital breakthrough in the long pursuit of justice in the Lockerbie bombing.
It is nothing of the kind. It is, instead, continuation of a course of action which had resulted in a shameful miscarriage of justice; one which brings us no nearer to establishing the truth about the terrible atrocity in which 270 people were killed when their Pan Am flight was blown up just before Christmas in 1988.
The Libyan government – such as it is in the currently fractured country – has ordered an investigation into the abduction of the 71-year-old man from his home in Tripoli by a militia before he turned up in the US. The country’s attorney general did not issue an arrest warrant, and says the handover to American authorities is likely to have been illegal.
The “confession” that he was the Lockerbie bombmaker which Masud – a former Gadaffi regime agent – allegedly made to Libyan officials after he was seized in Libya a decade ago, has long been considered dubious by many with knowledge of the bombing and its subsequent investigation.
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the rendition of Masud was the “product of years of cooperation between US and Scottish authorities and the efforts of Libyan authorities over many years.” Officials in Washington have refused to furnish any details of how the transaction took place.
But it is not just possible abuse of procedure which is the main issue in this. The prosecution of Masud is predicated on the narrative that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan, was responsible for the attack.
But many of those closely involved in the case are convinced that his conviction, by a Scottish court, was fundamentally unjust, should have been overturned and have been campaigning for this over the years.
I saw Megrahi in the winter of 2011 in Tripoli, where he had been sent from his prison in Scotland after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was lying in bed attached to a drip, oxygen mask on his skeletal face, drifting in and out of consciousness. The medicine he needed had been plundered by looters in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of the Gaddafi regime; the doctors treating him had fled.
The vengeful pursuit of Megrahi, the feeling that he had escaped justice by failing to die in a cell, persisted among those who were adamant that he was guilty. He was faking his illness, they claimed right until his death; there were demands that the post-revolutionary Libyan government should arrest and send him back to Scotland or on to the US.
Megrahi died a few months later.
Members of some of the bereaved families in the bombing have long been convinced that his conviction was wrong. Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, Flora was clear: “I went into that court thinking I was going to see the trial of those who were responsible for the murder of my daughter. I came out thinking he had been framed. I am very afraid that we saw steps taken to ensure that a politically desired result was obtained.”
I reported from the specially constituted Scottish court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, where Megrahi and his fellow Libyan defendant, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, were tried and the flaws in the prosecution case became apparent very early.
The two men were charged with what amounted to joint enterprise, yet Megrahi was found guilty and Fhimah was freed. The prosecution evidence was circumstantial and contradictory. Key prosecution witnesses were shaky under cross-examination.
The evidence of a supposedly prime “CIA intelligence asset”, Abdul Majid Giaka (codename “Puzzle Piece”) – who turned up in court wearing a drag queen’s costume in an attempt to hide his identity – was widely ridiculed. It emerged later that important evidence had not been passed to the defence lawyers by the Crown.
There was scathing criticism from international jurists about the proceedings. Professor Hans Köchler, a UN appointed [observer], described them as an “inconsistent, arbitrary and a spectacular miscarriage of justice”. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission subsequently identified six grounds where it believed “a miscarriage of justice may have occurred”.
Cynical realpolitik had played a key role in the prosecution. Both British and American officials initially claimed that Iran commissioned the attack on the Pan Am flight using the Palestinian guerrilla group PFLP (GC), based in Damascus, in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the US.
That changed suddenly, however, after the first Gulf War when Syria joined the US sponsored coalition against Saddam Hussein: the same Western officials now held that Libya was the culprit state.
Colonel Gadaffi’s regime eventually paid out (...) compensation to the families of the victims; but that was seen by those unconvinced by the new theory as one just of the deals which, at the time, brought him back into the international fold.
An appeal to clear Megrahi’s name, backed some of the bereaved families and eminent lawyers, was turned down by the Appeal Court in Edinburgh in 2015 because the law was “not designed to give relatives of victims a right to proceed in an appeal for their own or the public’s interest”.
The US case against Masud is that he had colluded with Megrahi and Fhimah to carry out the bombing. It is claimed that he met the two men in Malta with the bomb which went on to the hold of the Pan Am plane through a connecting flight.
But, as we know, Fhimah was acquitted by the Lockerbie court, where the prosecution had insisted that he and Megrahi were the two bomb plotters in Malta.
Robert Black, KC, an eminent law professor born in Lockerbie who played a key role in organising the Camp Zeist trial, and subsequently became convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice warned back in 2013 that British officials were trying to retrospectively manipulate information implicating Masud and buttressing the case against Megrahi. “It looks like the Crown Office is trying to shore up the Malta connection, which is pretty weak,” he said.
Much of the information implicating Masud as being linked to Megrahi is coming from a former Libyan security official called Musbah Eter, who the FBI has been interviewing.
Eter has had a chequered life. He was convicted of the bombing of the La Belle nightclub in Berlin in 1986; an attack which prompted Ronald Reagan to bomb Libya, with some of the warplanes flying from British bases. A German TV investigation subsequently revealed that Eter was a CIA “asset”.
We do not know why it took him more than two decades to come forward with the Lockerbie information, or what influence his relationship with US intelligence played in this.
As well as Masud, the Americans hold that Abdullah al-Senussi – who was both Muammar Gaddafi’s chief of intelligence and his brother-in-law – is involved in the bombing. He is in prison in Libya, and may also end up in the US.
We will see Masud, and probably Senussi as well, end up facing Lockerbie charges at a court, and we may yet see another CIA operative – Eter this time – doing a court turn in a drag queen’s wig. None of this, however, will bring us nearer to knowing the truth about the terrible Lockerbie massacre.
[RB: Further pieces on the Lockerbie case by Kim Sengupta can be accessed here.]