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Death cheats Lockerbie bomber of final verdict

James Meikel

Many of the victims' families believe Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was set up and the Scottish authorities have promised that the investigation is not over.

Some relatives of victims of the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing believe the case is yet to be solved. (Martin Cleaver, AP)

The death of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, when Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Scotland in the week before Christmas 1988, means it is less likely than ever that the full story behind the outrage will be told.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who died in Tripoli on Sunday, two years and nine months after his release from a Scottish jail, always protested his innocence.

The 60-year-old, whose imminent death had been predicted on several occasions since his return to Libya, had been a Libyan intelligence officer as well as head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines and director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tripoli, according to United States and British authorities.

In November 1991 he and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah were indicted in the US and Scotland for the bombing, which killed 259 passengers and crew on the Pan Am jet and 11 people on the ground. Libya refused to extradite them, although they were kept under arrest.

Eight years later they were handed over after negotiations that led to their prosecution under Scottish law, at a court with three judges but no jury, in the Netherlands. In January 2001 Megrahi was convicted of 270 murders and jailed for life. Fhimah was acquitted.

Accepted responsibility
The Libyan government paid $2.7-billion in compensation and accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials, but did not admit direct responsibility for the bombing. Megrahi was jailed first at Barlinnie, in Glasgow, and later at Greenock. His wife and children moved to Scotland too.

Years of legal wrangling followed. An appeal was rejected in 2002 and there was also a £1.1-million investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which found that there were six grounds on which a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. A full appeal got under way in April 2009, but it was dropped suddenly the following August, two days before Megrahi was put on an aeroplane to Tripoli. Climbing aboard the plane he wore a white shell-suit to hide body armour. He had been transferred from prison in a bombproof vehicle accompanied by security officers.

An international furore erupted over the release and there were allegations that it had been sanctioned by the British government to secure more business and oil deals with the Gaddafi regime. Gordon Brown’s administration was forced to admit it had known in advance of the release but that it had been a matter for the Scottish justice system. Current British Prime Minister David Cameron always said that Megrahi should have died in jail.

Even as the Gaddafis faced overthrow last year, state TV showed Megrahi at a rally in support of the threatened rulers. But when rebel forces took control of Tripoli and discovered Megrahi apparently close to death, the national transitional council said he would not be returned to the United Kingdom.

Late last year, the new Tripoli government gave the UK some encouragement to mount fresh investigations, both into Lockerbie and the shooting of Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher in London in 1984.

Access to records
Megrahi’s family insisted he was too ill to be seen by British officials, and in March Libyan officials appeared to rule out the possibility of British detectives travelling to Libya to conduct new inquiries for the foreseeable future.

However, Frank Mulholland, the lord advocate and Scotland’s chief law officer, recently visited Tripoli with FBI chief Robert Mueller to kickstart talks about getting access to records from Gaddafi’s regime and potential suspects, who are believed to include the former Libyan head of intelligence, Abdullah al-Senussi.

Although many relatives of Lockerbie victims remain convinced of Megrahi’s guilt, there are some, particularly in Britain, who believe he is innocent. John Ashton, Megrahi’s biographer and author of Megrahi: You Are My Jury, said: “I think there will be moves to reopen the appeal. That has yet to be decided. I would very much hope that his appeal is resurrected and that somebody does make an application to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.”

Ashton’s biography quotes Megrahi as stating he was “framed” for the attack. Although he refused to blame Dumfries and Galloway police, he accused the Crown Office of “a blatant breach” of their obligations to disclose all the evidence in the case. “If I was a terrorist, then I was an exceptionally stupid one,” he said.

Large rewards
The grounds of appeal included compelling evidence that the chief prosecution witness, Tony Gauci, wrongly identified Megrahi and linked him to the bomb that brought down the plane; new evidence that Gauci and his brother were paid large rewards after the conviction; new scientific evidence disputed evidence that the type of timer in the bomb was solely used by the Libyans; and failure to disclose a break-in at Heathrow Airport near flight 103, which could easily have allowed the bomb to be planted.

Ashton, who worked as Megrahi’s researcher during the Libyan’s appeal, said he was upset by his death. “We have always expected this day to come. We’d been expecting it for three years, but it’s still shattering. It’s still pretty shocking. I had come to like him. For all he had been through, there was remarkably little rancour.”

The UK and US authorities have repeatedly brushed off claims by campaigners that the bomb was planted by Syrian agents and Palestinian terrorists in revenge for the attack on an Iranian passenger airliner by a US warship.

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond said: “The Lockerbie case remains a live investigation and Scotland’s criminal justice authorities have made clear that they will rigorously pursue any new lines of inquiry.”

Jim Swire, whose daughter was a passenger on Pan Am 103, told Sky News: “It’s a very sad event. Right up to the end he was determined – for his family’s sake, he knew it was too late for him, but for his family’s sake – how the verdict against him should be overturned.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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