Lockerbie: Drowning the facts

The righteous fury vented this week over the compassionate release of the dying “Lockerbie bomber”, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, has drowned out the voice of reason. A cool appraisal of the evidence shows that he is almost certainly not guilty.

The Libyan appears to be a scapegoat of crude international realpolitik, dictated by the United States’s need for new Middle Eastern allies during the first Gulf War.

South Africa has a powerful interest in seeing the truth exposed, as it was Nelson Mandela who brokered the 1999 deal that allowed al-Megrahi and his co-accused to be tried by a specially created court in Holland.

Hans Köchler, the legal observer nominated by the UN secretary general to monitor the trial, concluded that it took place “in a context of power politics”. Damningly, he concluded: “There is not one single piece of material evidence linking the two accused to the crime.
In such a context, the guilty verdict — appears to be arbitrary, even irrational.”

The outrage in the US at al-Megrahi’s “hero’s welcome” in Libya also reveals a spectacular double standard. At first it was thought that the bomb that exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1998, killing 270 people, was revenge for the shooting down of a civilian Iranian airliner by a US warship six months before, which resulted in 290 deaths, including 66 children.

The US said this was a “mistake” but never formally apologised. Yet when Captain William C Rogers III, in command of the USS Vincennes, returned after his tour of duty President George Bush Snr awarded him the Legion of Merit medal.

For nearly two years after the Lockerbie tragedy both US and UK intelligence services were convinced that it was a revenge attack. Within months, the British minister of transport announced that the culprits were about to be arrested. Intelligence agencies continued to leak the names of suspects and point to a clear plot: that Iran had paid millions of dollars to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—supported and protected by Syria—to carry out a revenge attack.

Detailed leaks continued until the eve of the first Gulf War. They identified PFLP leader Ahmed Jibril and, crucially, Abu Talb, by then in a Swedish prison for other terrorist offences, as having been in Malta when clothes were bought that were later wrapped around the device that blew up Flight 103.

In December 1989 the London Sunday Times reported: “During a 90-minute closed court session, Ulf Forsburg, the Uppsala district prosecutor, told the presiding magistrate that the owner of a boutique in Sliema, Malta, had identified Talb as the man to whom he sold the clothes.”

All this was soon forgotten. And later the Maltese shopkeeper was to contradict his original evidence to suit the new scenario. What had changed was international politics. During the Iran-Iraq War, the West secretly backed Saddam Hussein and Iraq. As soon as that war ended, the US and the UK provided Hussein with massive trade credits and arms. In August 1990, however, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the West suddenly needed new allies in the region.

“Thus very quickly, in the summer and autumn of 1990, a sea change took place in the Gulf,” wrote the British investigative journalist Paul Foot. “The US, UK and their allies started to negotiate with their former enemies. All this was completed quickly—in November 1990 new deals were signed to neutralise Iran and bring Syrian forces into the combined operation against Saddam, already known as Desert Storm.”

Clearly Syria and Iran could no longer be vilified as terrorist masterminds, or instigators of the Lockerbie bombing. Then president Bush Snr announced: “Syria took a bum rap on this.” Another version was called for and supplied. “The first signs of change came as the opposing armies started to build up in the desert,” wrote Foot in his 31-page special report for Private Eye, called “Lockerbie: The Flight from Justice”. “In October 1990 a series of newspaper reports indicated that the guilty country responsible for Lockerbie was not Iran or Syria or even Palestine. The guilty country was Libya. These new suspicions were not reflected in either of the two official inquiries into the Lockerbie disaster.”

Some British relatives of victims of the Lockerbie bombing, who have monitored every twist in this complex and sinister saga, are convinced that justice has not been served. One said she was convinced that al-Megrahi had been framed out of political expediency.

Where did al-Megrahi’s name surface? At the Camp Zeist trial in Holland it emerged that it was supplied by Majid Giaka, an unreliable Libyan informer for the CIA. Giaka produced the name only when his increasingly frustrated CIA handlers threatened to cut him off unless he provided something useful.
At the Camp Zeist trial the judges summed up Giaka’s evidence as “at best grossly exaggerated, at worst simply untrue”.

But when investigators showed a photo of al-Megrahi to the Maltese shop owner, Tony Gauci, who had previously identified the Palestinian Talb, Gauci suddenly agreed he could have sold him clothes. In his initial testimony Gauci had stated that this man had been at least 1.8m tall and more than 50 years of age. Al-Magrahi is 1.7m and at the time of the supposed shop visit was 37.

Gauci’s evidence, on which al-Megrahi’s conviction really hangs, is riddled with discrepancies. After the trial the man responsible for the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing and for indicting al-Megrahi, the former Scottish Lord Advocate, Lord Fraser, described Gauci as “not quite the full shilling” and “an apple short of a picnic”.

One convenient advantage of al-Megrahi’s compassionate release, because he is dying of cancer, is that his appeal against his 2001 conviction will now not be heard.

Lawyers representing the Libyan would have alleged that Gauci was “coached” and that the US paid him a ­$2-million dollar reward.

These charges, as well as all other flimsy or discredited evidence, will never be retested in court.

Camp Zeist trial observer Köchler noted several disquieting factors. He pointed out that, quite improperly, two representatives of the US justice department were seated next to the prosecution team, giving the impression of being “supervisors”.

He concluded that foreign governments, or their agencies, may have been allowed to determine what evidence was made available, adding: “Virtually all people presented by the prosecution as key witnesses were proven to lack credibility, in certain cases even having lied openly to the court.”

In the recent international furore all this has been forgotten. Is al-Megrahi guilty? We don’t know. But he clearly he did not get a fair trial.

Rostron’s new novel Black Petals is published by Jacana (2009)

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