Why can’t Al Megrahi just hurry up and die?

August 21, 2010

I like to imagine that whenever any ambitious politician gets their hands anywhere near the levers of power, there is a small rite of passage through which they must first go. They are taken away somewhere (could be a private dining room at a restaurant, could be a lightless cell), and there somebody shows them a list of subjects and explains the position thus:

“Everything on this list is a huge can of worms. Whatever you do in your political career, you must avoid these subjects. If you are unable to avoid them, here is what you need to say and the line to which you must, at all costs, stick. If you fail to do this, your political career and maybe other things will end, right there.”

And, of course, the politician is sensible and does just that.

If this is true (and I strongly suspect that there must be some truth in it), one of the subjects on the list is undoubtedly the bombing of flight Pan Am 103 on 21st December 1988 or, as it is better known, the Lockerbie bombing. 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people in the town of Lockerbie were killed. Forensic evidence came to show that the bomb had been planted in a Samsonite suitcase, wrapped in clothes which had been bought at a shop in Malta run by a man called Tony Gauci.

The case is in the news again because the man convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history, Abdelbasset Ali Mohamed Al Megrahi was released a year ago from prison on compassionate grounds after a doctor testified that his cancer gave him only 3 months to live.

This has caused some upset – entirely understandable coming from relatives of victims of the atrocity who would clearly like to see Megrahi dead. I believe that the consternation coming from the US government has an entirely different origin – as long as Megrahi is still alive, there’s a possibility that he could try appealing against his ruling (as he was about to do while in prison – the compassionate release was offered on condition that he dropped the appeal). And, if he were to appeal, it’s very likely that he would win for the simple reason that he (almost certainly) didn’t do it.

To spell it out – the man convicted of this awful atrocity almost certainly had absolutely nothing to do with it. The evidence against him is extraordinarily weak, resting largely on a disputable identification of him by Tony Gauci (whose story in court differed from earlier accounts given in questioning and may subsequently have been paid large amounts of money by the Americans), and the word of a paid CIA informant called Giako, a liar and fantasist who appears to have told his CIA handlers what he believed they wanted to hear in return for money. This blogpost is an attempt to summarise at least some of the whole sordid story in the hope of convincing people that there is at least a case to answer. Most of the information here is from ‘Lockerbie – The Flight From Justice‘, a report compiled by Paul Foot and published by Private Eye in 2001, which you are urged to seek out and read.

To begin at the beginning, the initial leads after the bombing all pointed to it being a revenge attack sponsored by Iran (with assistance from Syria) for the US shooting down of one of their passenger jets. A series of reports by the Sunday Times identified the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command as the culprits and named some of the key players (one of whom, bizarrely, was arrested and then released for ‘lack of evidence’ despite the fact that an altitude-sensitive bomb of the kind used in Lockerbie was apparently found in his car). The hypothesis, broadly speaking, was that a German-based terrorist cell of the PFLP-GC had smuggled a bomb onto a plane in Malta in an unaccompanied bag, the plane had connected with a flight in Frankfurt where the bomb had ended up on a London-bound plane, where it finally ended up on Pam Am 103.

As hypotheses go, it wasn’t perfect – in particular, the ‘Malta bag loading’ part of it was disproved in court when Air Malta sued Granada Television for libel after Granada had run a documentary about it. It was shown that all of the 55 bags on the plane were accompanied by passengers, none of whom flew to London (this point becomes relevant later on). But it did look as if the right bunch of people were in the frame.

Then, after two years, suddenly the story changed. The reason for this was that Saddam Hussein (a thug with whom the Americans had previously been quite happy to do business) invaded Kuwait and it was decided that this was a Bad Thing, therefore America began the first Gulf War to sort things out. To do this, they needed partners in the region – Syria looked like a good bet, but it would have been a bit embarrassing to have Syria as a coalition partner, while they were being investigated over their part in a plot to blow up an American airliner full of American civilians.

So, the initial investigation into the Iran / Syria connection was abandoned, and Libya chosen as the fall guy – after all, no-one liked Libya or Colonel Gadaffi very much. So they were quite convenient.

Al Megrahi’s name entered the ring along with that of another Libyan intelligence officer, Lamin Fhimah, on the basis of information from a Majid Giaka. Giaka was a CIA informant who had defected from Libya and seems to have been something of a fantasist – pretending, for example, that he had been a senior official in Libyan intelligence (he wasn’t, as the CIA realised). Since he was the best the CIA had, they kept him on the payroll despite their reservations, but were getting increasingly tired of him until Libya was chosen as the fall guy for Lockerbie whereupon he suddenly became valuable to them again.

At this point, proceedings stalled because Gadaffi refused to hand over the two suspects. In a sense, everyone was happy – America had a couple of Libyans on whom it could blame the bombing and could happily whinge about Gadaffi if challenged, and the sleeping dog was allowed a good few years of slumber with no (potentially embarrassing) court cases. Miserable for the families of the victims who, not unreasonably, wanted someone brought to justice for the atrocity, but the governments involved were all reasonably content with the status quo. Until, that is, Nelson Mandela persuaded Gadaffi to give up the accused men for trial.

The trial took place in the Netherlands without a jury – it was to be heard by three Lords: Lord Sutherland, Lord Coulsfield and Lord Maclean. There were so many failings in the prosecution case that it is difficult to know where to begin (once again, I urge you to acquire the Private Eye supplement mentioned above, of which this post is merely a summary). However, the following facts came to light:

  • The truth about the CIA’s opinions of their Libyan informant Giaka. At first the CIA tried to prevent disclosure of this information, then they were released in a redacted form (but it because apparent that the prosecution had seen the uncensored versions that hadn’t been made available to the defence) and finally they were out in the open. It was obvious that Giako’s paymasters realised that he was a liar and fantasist and were on the verge of cutting off his money supply, making it clear that they expected him to come up with something they could use to incriminate his former colleagues in the Libyan intelligence services. The judges agreed that he couldn’t be trusted as a witness. In fact, the first defendant, Fhimah, was acquitted. Without Fhimah (and remembering that both men were only suspects because they’d been named by Giaka who was dependent on CIA cash), there really should have been no case against Megrahi.
  • The case required that Megrahi loaded the bag onto the plane in Malta, which flew to Frankfurt and was then loaded onto the flight to London. In the libel action against Granada, it was established that all bags were accounted for (and note that, during the stalemate, Der Spiegel in Germany had published allegations from a ‘credible witness’ that the bomb had been loaded onto a plane in bits in Frankfurt with assistance from the head of Iran Air, to be assembled in London). There was, however, some slightly vague paperwork which, if you accepted a certain amount of coincidence, might suggest that there had been an unattended bag transferred in Frankfurt after all. The baggage handler in question was never called as a witness. Also, the X-ray operator at Frankfurt who would have scanned the bag was perfectly competent and had recently been warned to look out for bombs of the type used over Lockerbie. When all is said and done, it seems unlikely that the bag containing the bomb came from Malta.
  • There was powerful evidence that the bomb had, in fact, been loaded onto the plane at Heathrow. A baggage handler remembered having left a baggage container on the tarmac during his lunch break. Upon his return, he noticed two extra bags on it, one of which was a “maroony brown Samsonite” of the type which, forensic specialists had determined, the bomb had been stored in. And furthermore, the location of that baggage container after it was loaded onto the plane agreed with the assessment of where the bomb had been. The baggage handler in question had told the police this when interviewed a couple of weeks after the bombing, and repeated the story in court.
  • The prosecution maintained that the timing device used was an MST-13 – this was based on a fragment of circuit board allegedly recovered from the debris (though the story of this fragment is quite murky involving the appearance of alterations to pages of notes). However, there was compelling evidence that the detonator used was a simple pressure sensitive device – an expert testified that  the point in the flight at which such a detonator would have triggered was consistent with when the bomb actually went off. Also, it was known that middle eastern terrorist groups had used such timers before.

At this point, the evidence against Megrahi was extremely weak – his alleged co-conspiritor had been acquitted, a key witness revealed as a liar, and the idea that the bag had been loaded in Malta was attacked on two fronts (records suggested it wasn’t and if it had it probably wouldn’t have made it through X-ray at Frankfurt, and there was compelling evidence that a bag matching the type containing the bomb had been introduced into the system at Heathrow).

So, the prosecution fell back on the evidence of the shopkeeper who had sold the clothes in which the bomb was wrapped. More facts:

  • Tony Gauci recalled that the man who had bought the clothes in late 1988 had done so on a day when his brother, Paul Gauci, was at home watching a football match, and the Christmas decorations were not yet up. A bit of detective work narrowed this down to two possible dates – 23 November and 7 December 1988. He also recalled that the man who bought the clothes had an umbrella with him and that it was raining. This fitted nicely with 23 November, but unfortunately Al Megrahi wasn’t in Malta on that date (though the initial suspect from the PFLP-GC – a man called Abu Talb – was, oddly enough). There was almost certainly no rain on 7 December but, since Al Megrahi was in Malta on that date, 7 December was accepted as the day when the clothes were bought.
  • In all interviews, Tony Gauci maintained that the man who bought the clothes was about 50 years old and over 6 feet tall (Al Megrahi was 37 at the time, and 5’8″). At trial he suddenly became quite vague about both of these facts.
  • The original suspect, Abu Talb, was brought in to give evidence for the prosecution to establish that he had nothing to do with the bombing. It became apparent that the PFLP-GC was, indeed, engaged in building bombs and disguising them in Toshiba cassette recorders in order to smuggle them onto aircraft.
  • You will recall that one of the men believed to be a key player in the now-forgotten PFLP-GC story  was arrested and released, despite having a Lockerbie-type bomb in his car. That person was Marwan Khreesat, and it transpired that he was an agent working for the Jordanian government and for the CIA, which might explain why he was released. In evidence given on his behalf, it was revealed that he had infiltrated the PFLP, and was making bombs for them. One evening he’d made 5 bombs, gone for a shower, then discovered that one had gone, apparently taken by another PFLP member. The missing bomb had been disguised inside a Toshiba cassette recorder.

So, we have the suggestion that the PFLP had been infiltrated by a CIA agent who made bombs designed to be smuggled onto planes. One of these bombs disappeared. Two months later, Pam Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie.

Now, it doesn’t take much insight into geopolitics to realise that an American airliner being blown up by a bomb built by a CIA operative would be – well, embarrassing doesn’t even come close to covering it. So, despite being put in the frame by a man the court recognised as a fantasist, despite the unlikeliness of a passengerless case containing a bomb being loaded in Malta and surviving undetected on the journey to London, despite the evidence that a Samsonite case was mysteriously added to the cargo of a plane at Heathrow, despite that unreliable identification evidence from Tony Gauci, despite the fact that it almost certainly wasn’t raining on the day Al Megrahi must have bought the clothes while carrying an umbrella, and despite the very compelling evidence that the real culprits were the PFLP-GC sponsored by Iran as a revenge attack, the judges found Al Megrahi guilty of murder.

Read the Private Eye report for more detail. You can read a report by Dr. Hans Köchler, international observer of the International Progress Organization nominated by the United Nations to observe the trial here. Point 10 begins: “A general pattern of the trial consisted in the fact that virtually all people presented by the prosecution as key witnesses were proven to lack credibility to a very high extent, in certain cases even having openly lied to the Court. ”

I’ll leave you with the penultimate paragraph from the Private Eye report:

In February 1990, a group of British relatives went to the American embassy in London for a meeting with the seven members of the President’s commission on aviation security and terrorism. Martin Cadman remembers: “After we’d had our say, the meeting broke up and we moved towards the door. As we got there, I found myself talking to two members of the Commission – I think they were senators. One of them said: “Your government and our government know exactly what happened at Lockerbie. But they are not going to tell you.” “


One comment

  1. […] fuselage. It was a horrific scene, the result of an evil act. Assuming the guilt of al-Megrahi (in itself debatable), a life sentence in a Scottish prison was the most appropriate outcome. In the years that have […]

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