Who really bombed Pan Am flight 103?
NEWSPAPERS have been trying to shock readers with the news that "Lockerbie bomber" Abdelbaset al Megrahi, currently serving a 27-year sentence in Scotland, may be allowed to return to Libya under a high-level prisoner deal.
But writing in the London Review of Books, Hugh Miles has questioned whether the prisoner was guilty at all.
Pan Am flight 103 was blown up at 31,000 feet on December 21, 1988. The nose of the aircraft was torn clean off. Within three seconds of the bomb detonating, the cockpit, fuselage and No. 3 engine were falling separately out of the sky. It happened so quickly that no distress call was sent out and no oxygen masks deployed. With the cockpit gone, the fuselage depressurised instantly and the passengers in the rear section of the aircraft found themselves staring out into the Scottish night air.
Anyone not strapped down was whipped out of the plane; the change in air pressure made the passengers’ lungs expand to four times their normal volume and everyone lost consciousness. As the fuselage plummeted and the air pressure began to return to normal, some passengers came round, including the captain. A few survived all the way down, until they hit the ground. Rescuers found them clutching crucifixes, or holding hands, still strapped into their seats.
The fuselage of the plane landed on a row of homes in Lockerbie. The wing section of the Boeing 747, loaded with enough fuel for a transatlantic flight, hit the ground at more than 500 miles an hour and exploded in a fireball that lit the sky. The cockpit, with the first-class section still attached, landed beside a church in the village of Tundergarth.
Altogether 243 passengers, 16 crew members and 11 people on the ground were killed. Bodies and debris were strewn across the Scottish countryside. Among items found were the remains of a Samsonite suitcase, which investigators later established had been used to transport the bomb. The suitcase had contained clothes that were subsequently traced to the shop of a Maltese man called Tony Gauci, who later became a key prosecution witness. Fragments of a circuit board and a Toshiba radio were also recovered and identified as parts of the bomb.
Twelve years later, on 31 January 2001, a panel of three Scottish judges convicted a former Libyan intelligence officer for mass murder at Lockerbie. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was tried at a specially convened court on a former US air force base near the Dutch town of Zeist. Under a special international arrangement, the court, which sat without a jury, was temporarily declared sovereign territory of the United Kingdom, under the jurisdiction of Scottish law.
Al-Megrahi was sentenced to 27 years in jail. His co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, a fellow Libyan intelligence officer, was acquitted. Al-Megrahi was initially told that he would spend at least twenty years in prison, but the Crown, which was prosecuting, protested that this sentence was unduly lenient and petitioned the judges for a longer one. In 2003 the judges reconvened to rule that he must serve no less than 27 years before the parole board would consider his eligibility for release. Al-Megrahi’s defence team had already lodged an appeal against the conviction, but in March 2002 the guilty verdict was upheld.
The Lockerbie bombing was the deadliest terror attack on American civilians until 11 September 2001. Pan Am never recovered from the damage to its reputation. The trial at Camp Zeist was the longest and – at a cost of £75 million – the most expensive in Scottish legal history. The appeal hearing was the first Scottish trial to be broadcast live on both television and the internet.
But was Megrahi really guilty? Robert Black QC, an emeritus professor of Scottish law at Edinburgh University, and one of the architects of the original trial in Holland has closely followed developments since the disaster happened and in 2000 devised the non-jury trial system for the al-Megrahi case.
Even before the trial he was so sure the evidence against al-Megrahi would not stand up in court that he is on record as saying that a conviction would be impossible. He is still convinced that al-Megrahi should not have been convited on the evidence heard and that what the Scottish court did was an outrage.
Al-Megrahi lost his appeal in 2002, but under Scottish law he is entitled to a further legal review, to be conducted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), an independent public body made up of senior police officers and lawyers. Its job is to re-examine cases where a miscarriage of justice may have occurred: it handles cases after the appeal process has been exhausted, and if it finds evidence that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place it refers the case to the High Court to be heard again. Al-Megrahi applied to the SCCRC for a review of his case in 2003 and the commission has been reinspecting evidence from the trial for the last four years. It will submit its findings at the end of June.
Miles thinks it likely that the SCCRC will find that there is enough evidence to refer al-Megrahi’s case back to the appeal court. The Crown Office has already begun reinforcing its Lockerbie legal team in anticipation of a referral. If al-Megrahi is granted a second appeal, it will take place in Scotland, and may not be heard before the summer of 2008. Al-Megrahi’s defence team would be ready to launch an appeal in a matter of weeks, but the prosecution would be likely to delay the hearing for as long as possible.
"If an appeal takes place, al-Megrahi’s defence team will produce important evidence that was not available at the time of the first appeal, evidence that seems likely not only to exonerate al-Megrahi but to do so by pointing the finger of blame at the real perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing and revealing some inconvenient truths".
Even the judge who presided over the Lockerbie investigation and issued the 1991 arrest warrants for the two Libyans has cast doubt on the prosecution’s case. In an interview with the Sunday Times in October 2005, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, Scotland’s lord advocate from 1989 to 1992, questioned the reliability of the shopkeeper Tony Gauci, the prosecution’s star witness. ‘Gauci was not quite the full shilling. I think even his family would say [that he] was an apple short of a picnic. He was quite a tricky guy, I don’t think he was deliberately lying but if you asked him the same question three times he would just get irritated and refuse to answer.’
Pages of reports, detailing freight and baggage movements in and out of Frankfurt airport, have been handed over to the defence. Largely in German and many handwritten, the papers were translated by the Crown at the taxpayer’s expense, but the Crown refused to share the translations with the defence and left it no time to commission its own. The Privy Council’s judicial committee, made up of law lords and senior judges, has declared that the Crown’s refusal to disclose this evidence is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
More damaging still, an unnamed senior British police officer – known to be a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS), which implies that his rank is assistant chief constable or higher – has testified to al-Megrahi’s defence team that crucial evidence at the trial was fabricated.
Many people believe that the US government had a hand in fixing the trial. Hans Köchler, the UN observer at Camp Zeist, reported at the time that the trial was politically charged and the verdict ‘totally incomprehensible’.
In his report Köchler wrote that he found the presence of US Justice Department representatives in the court ‘highly problematic’, because it gave the impression that they were ‘“supervisors” handling vital matters of the prosecution strategy and deciding . . . which documents . . . were to be released in open court and what parts of information contained in a certain document were to be withheld.’ ‘The alternative theory of the defence,’ he went on, ‘was never seriously investigated.
al-Megrahi may be free this summer, if the judge is persuaded he will come back from Libya for another round in court. If al-Megrahi is exonerated, the question arises, what about the $2.7 billion compensation paid by Libya to the relatives of the victims of the bombing? And who really bombed Flight 103?
In the first few years after the bombing, police, the FBI, and news reports figured they knew who carried out the Lockerbie bombing, and why. This relates to another airliner attacked that year, the Iran Air Airbus, shot down by the USS Vincennes while on a scheduled flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. Almost 300 passengers, including 66 children, were killed when the Vincennes' two missiles ripped through Iran Air Flight 655. US forces claimed they and their sophisticated radar had mistaken the big airbus for an F14 fighter. It was the day before the 4th of July, and Americans went ahead and celebrated. Nobody was ever put on trial for this attack. In fact, the captain of the Vincennes was later decorated.
Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran. The Syrian government and intelligence services might have been able to cement relations with Iran by putting the Iranians in touch with a Syrian-based asset that could undertake the job. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command), led by a former Syrian army officer called Ahmed Jibril, and not to be confused with the bigger PFLP, has made up for lack of a popular movement and ideology by concentrating on technical skills. This is the group that tried using hang gliders to raid into Israel.
Evidence obtained by al-Megrahi’s defence shows that a member of the PFLP(Ahmed Jibril) called Abu Talb was in Malta when the Lockerbie bombing took place. The Maltese man whose testimony convicted al-Megrahi has also identified Abu Talb. During al-Megrahi’s trial Abu Talb was named as someone who – rather than the accused – might have carried out the bombing. At the time he was serving a life sentence in Sweden for the bombing of a synagogue, but he was summoned to Camp Zeist to give evidence. He ended up testifying as a prosecution witness, denying that he had anything to do with Lockerbie. In exchange for his testimony, he received lifelong immunity from prosecution.
Other evidence has emerged showing that the bomb could have been placed on the plane at Frankfurt airport, where the Ahmed Jibril group had an active cell. Most significantly, according to Hugh Miles, German federal police have provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.
Why would the US have turned attention away from the Ahmed Jibril gropup, Syria and Iran? In the run-up to the first US intervention against their erstwhile ally Iraq, US strategy required a coalition including Iran and Syria to back them over Kuwait. Syria subsequently joined the UN forces. "Quietly, the evidence incriminating Jibril, so painstakingly sifted from the debris, was binned", says Hugh Miles.
That wasn't all. Juval Aviv, head of a New York investigation company looking into the bombing for Pan Am was indicted for mail fraud. "Lester Coleman, a former Defense Intelligence Agency operative who was researching a book about the PFLP-GC and Lockerbie, was charged by the FBI with ‘falsely procuring a passport’. William Casey, a lobbyist who made similar allegations in 1995, found his bank accounts frozen and federal agents searching through his trash."
There were other stories that fuelled conspiracy theory and gave the US possible motives for a cover-up. It was said the CIA had a drugs-for-information operation which the PFLP-GC was able to penetrate so they found a way of getting explosives on board the plane unchecked. At least four US intelligence officers, including the CIA’s deputy station chief in Beirut, were on the Flight 103 passenger list.
CIA agents, some in Pan Am overalls, scoured the Scottish countryside after the plane came down. Mary Boylan, then a constable with Lothian and Borders police, has said that senior police officers told her not to make an official record of the CIA badge she recovered from the wreckage, asking her instead to hand it over to a senior colleague. Jim Wilson, a farmer from Tundergarth, reported shortly after the bombing that he had found in his field a suitcase packed with a powdery substance that looked ‘like drugs’. He last saw the suitcase when he handed it over to the police, he said; he was never asked about it again.
When Libya handed al-Megrahi over for trial, sanctions on Libya authorised by the Security Council were suspended and diplomatic relations with Britain restored. Gaddafi has always contested that al-Megrahi is not the Lockerbie bomber and that he should be allowed to return home. One of Tony Blair's last acts as prime minister was to drop in on the Libyan leader for confidential talks. There is speculation that Gaddafi might have asked for the prisoner back. If Libya claimed its compensation back too the British government rather than the relatives might be asked to pay.
Now that Libya has been brought back in from the cold, US hostility is focussed on Syria (to the extent that Condoleeza Rice told Israeli premier Olmert not to accept a Syrian approach for talks), and of course on Iran. It might be enough to give the quest for justice over Lockerbie another twist. But if the US authorities now support a turn to blaming Ian and Syria, will they also admit that it was the action of the USS Vincennes, approved by the US area command and rewarded with decoration, that was the first shot in this air war? Somehow I doubt it.