BY KATE SPENCER
Twenty-one years later after the bombing with which it began, the Lockerbie saga just won’t go away. The most recent media coverage has revolved around the release of the convicted al-Megrahi and his return to Libya. His release and the hero’s welcome he received provoked international outrage, most vocally from the U.S. Was it really a straightforward case of the Scottish Justice Minster experiencing a tug on his heart strings after meeting al-Megrahi, terminally ill with cancer?
On December 21, 1988 at about 7:20pm, over a small town in the Scottish Borders, Pan Am 103, heading from Heathrow to New York’s JFK Airport and carrying primarily American passengers, fell from the sky . A bomb exploded from within the hold, tearing a hole into the side of the plane, which then snapped into pieces in the air. There was no time for the cabin crew to make a distress signal, no emergency procedures were initiated – all on board fell to the ground from 31,000 ft. The explosion killed 11 people on the ground Lockerbie. No passengers or crew on board the plane survived. Fatalities totalled 270.
Theories abound as to the perpetrators and motives of the attack. Books, films and countless documentaries have publicised the inconsistencies surrounding the case (notably few have been screened on U.S. television). Initial blame focused on three countries: Iran, Syria and Libya. Following the erroneous shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the USS Vincennes 5 months earlier, Iran had likely motive. The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency indicated that the Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine in conjunction with elements of the Iranian government and Hezbollah were planning to attack a U.S. target. 8 weeks before the bombing a PFLP cell was arrested in West Germany and bombs similar to that used on Pan Am 103 were confiscated.
However, in 2001 a Libyan intelligence officer, Abelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, was convicted of involvement in the bombing and sentenced to life imprisonment, amid extreme doubts over the circumstantial evidence that secured the conviction.
The trial was conducted under Scottish criminal law, before three judges and no jury at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. The entire investigation, trial and aftermath has been immensely complex, and al-Megrahi’s release has only served to fan the flames of conspiracy theorists and add to the international controversy. Skepticism of some of many of the emerging theories is important.
Potentially significant evidence was either not followed up or not presented at trial. It is alleged that quantities of heroin, large sums of U.S. dollars and a T-shirt bearing Hezbollah insignia were found at the crash site in Lockerbie, claims that were never investigated. American agents were present at the crash scene and a recent documentary film has suggested a fragment of the explosive device left the U.K. and was examined in the U.S.: an allegation which, if true, could have resulted in a claim of contamination of evidence. Further facts that raise questions are: the party of American intelligence officers on board the flight returning to the U.S. after an aborted hostage-rescue mission in Lebanon, the anonymous warning made to the U.S. Embassy in Finland in early December 1988, warning that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt would be blown up by Palestinian terrorists in the next two weeks. Still, politically and logistically, bringing an Iranian sponsored Palestinian terrorist cell to justice would have been nigh on impossible. Undoubtedly Libya was a more convenient accused.
The prosecution maintained that the bomb was placed in luggage in Malta. By the end of the trial the defense was suggesting the possibility of it being planted in Heathrow, a theory supported by Robert Baer, a former CIA agent (played by George Clooney in Syriana!) He suggests that it makes no sense for the bomb to be put on the plane at Malta and having to make two stops before it exploded on its way to the U.S. Much more likely, he maintains, that the bomb had been planted at Heathrow. Months after the conviction of al-Megrahi, a former security guard at Heathrow revealed he had discovered a break in at the Pan Am luggage facility on the day of the attack. The prosecution case relied on the premise that a bag was checked on a plane from Malta, not Heathrow, without a corresponding passenger. In a civil action brought by Air Malta over a “libellous” documentary that showed the “bomb bag” being loaded onto the plane at Malta, the airline produced evidence proving all bags had been accounted for and accompanied by passengers. The action settled out of court.
Also key to the prosecution case was the witness evidence of Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper and tailor, who claimed to have sold the clothes found in the suitcase containing the bomb to al-Megrahi. Considerable doubt arose from Gauci’s evidence, particularly in light of allegations of a $2 million pay-off. Gauci was non-committal as to whether al-Megrahi was the man who purchased the clothes from his shop. The closest he got to a positive identification was to state that there was a “resemblance”.
He was uncertain of the date he sold the clothes and was memorably described by the man who indicted al-Megrahi, Lord Fraser (Scotland’s most senior law officer at the time) as “not quite the full shilling”. The UN appointed external arbiter stated after the trial: “there is not one single piece of material evidence linking [Megrahi] to the crime… the guilty verdict appears to be arbitrary, even irrational.” He has also said that the split decision, where one accused was found guilty and the other not guilty is highly questionable and further, that it is impossible to believe that a lone intelligence officer could have masterminded and organised the attack. While the Libyans did eventually (in a roundabout way) accept responsibility for the attack and paid out billions in compensation to Lockerbie victims’ families, Libyan government officials label this move as purely pragmatic: ” [it was] easier for us to buy peace and this is why we agreed to compensation.”
A Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (a body established to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice) inquiry was launched and a recommendation given that there should be a new appeal. This second appeal was conveniently dropped before Al Megrahi’s release. Why? Was a deal done? Was Al Megrahi persuaded to drop his appeal so he could go home to die? Therein lies the true injustice – and the only assumption that can be drawn is it wouldn’t be in the interests of any government concerned to pursue the appeal.
Al-Megrahi’s release: a question of British interests, or of Scottish independence?
So, unanswered questions engulf the Lockerbie affair. An official inquiry, so desired by the families of the Scottish victims and the general public, has been repeatedly refused; the UN is now being called on to conduct an international inquiry. The evidential issues have never been resolved. Factor in the British commercial presence in Libya (oil and arms trade), the Blair government’s favorable attitude toward Gaddafi and Gaddafi’s volte-face desire to ingratiate himself into the international community. Add to this the extraordinary prisoner extradition agreement in 2007 (that the Scots refused to carry out) aimed solely at returning al-Megrahi to Libya and the picture of emerges is one that appears to leave the U.K. government with much explaining to do.
Whether the conspiracy theories have anything to do with al-Megrahi’s release is an entirely separate issue. What all these conspiracy theorists (who see the release as the latest development in a series of unorthodox goings-on) ignore is the “Scottish” issue. Scotland has a distinct legal system, an entirely independent criminal justice system and, since 1998, a devolved Scottish Parliament with the power to legislate on most “domestic” matters. The most recent Scottish ele
ction resulted in an Scottish Nationalist majority coalition, with a clear autonomist agenda. Relations between the Scottish Government and Westminster are frosty to say the least. The idea that the Nationalist administration would risk international censure by releasing al-Megrahi on the orders of Gordon Brown to further “British” business interests is, to my mind, absurd. Release on compassionate grounds is a genuine tradition in Scots criminal law and some suggest this was an example of the Scottish Government, keen to prove itself as an international actor, doing something uniquely “Scottish”. There was widespread support within Scotland for the release of al-Megrahi; perhaps as a result of the cynicism surrounding his conviction and the outspokenness of those advocating for his release, or at least re-trial. However the American reaction to the decision and the quagmire of controversy surrounding it negate any political expediency it may have achieved.
Currently, al-Megrahi is releasing documents he would have used in his latest appeal on the internet, documents which he says prove his innocence. But despite his release he will die guilty in the eyes of the law. Without a public inquiry the unanswered questions will never be answered and the alleged miscarriage of justice remains just that — alleged.
Kate Spencer is an LL.M. student from Scotland.