In light of the publication last week of John Ashton’s biography of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, here’s a timely and welcome personal view of the Lockerbie trial and conviction from David McEwan Hill.
As we beaver away on political blogs defining and refining our positions on every subject under the sun, we should never forget that we are the seriously informed – or perhaps the seriously misinformed – proportion of the Scottish population. A big part of the rest of our community has a significantly superficial view of most issues and assumes what they read in their chosen newspaper to be substantially true.
It is a widespread disengagement with the truth resulting from this flawed confidence which is frustrating the heroic attempts of a handful of dogged campaigners to have the travesty of the Camp Zeist conviction of al-Megrahi driven into public consciousness.
If we are to be a part of a society that is just, honest and civilised – as most believe it to be – it is essential that the complete and utter absurdity of the trial and conviction is completely exposed. There are powerful forces just as doggedly blocking this exposition and, depending on your point of view, our media is either a compliant part of this conspiracy or a victim of it.
If what I and a steadily growing number of informed people believe is true we see a plot that strikes at the very foundation of society in which our generations have confidently put their trust. And it may be a disgrace a lot bigger than the fitting up of one innocent man.
This is a concise overall account of the issue as I see it. Everything I cite can be easily sourced in the works of Private Eye’s late Paul Foot, in the late David Rollo’s booklet “A Bum Rap” and indeed, in John Ashton’s book published now, and in millions of other words published through many other sources and available online – but distressingly, so very little of it published in any meaningful way in our mainstream media. This is a critical point.
This almost blanket suppression is one of the great “whys” of this distressing affair . There are many “whys” and I hold that the unravelling of issues like this is better pursued through the “whys” than by the “hows “.
But to the main story.
On 21st December 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish border town of Lockerbie killing all 259 persons on the flight and eleven persons in the town.
On the 31st January 2001 – extraordinarily, more than eleven years after the atrocity – Libyan agent Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was charged and found guilty of placing a bomb on a plane in Malta which caused the subsequent explosion on Pan Am Flight 103. This was the verdict delivered in a special Scottish court, convened, oddly without a jury, in Camp Zeist in Holland. His co-accused was found not guilty. The convicted man was sent to serve his life sentence in Greenock Jail. He subsequently was given a compassionate release due to suffering from inoperable terminal cancer. None of this is in doubt: we all know this stuff. On this case sadly this is about all on which there is no doubt.
Immediately after the trial the United Nations observer at it, Austrian Professor Hans Kochler described the verdict as “a spectacular miscarriage of justice.”
Professor Robert Black QC, the Scottish organiser of the trial said “I am satisfied that not only was there a wrongful conviction, but the victim of it was an innocent man. It constitutes, in my view, the worst miscarriage of justice by a Scottish Criminal Court since the conviction of Oscar Slater in 1909 for the murder of Marion Gilchrist”.
Dr Jim Swire, whose 23 year old daughter Flora died in the bombing, went to the trial to see justice done to the murderer of his child and left the court convinced of Al Megrahi’s innocence.
He has said “The scandal around Al Megrahi is not that a sick man was released but that he was convicted in the first place. “ He describes the trial as “a tragedy for Scotland .”
Now I’m prepared to take these guys’ word for it. But the problem is that none of this has ever made sustained headlines – or any headlines at all in any of our media. And because of this amazing, long term episode of suppression the dirty deed at Camp Zeist was initially got away with.
Like most folk, I was mildly surprised when Libya suddenly was put in the frame. Until that point Iran had generally been spoken of as the likely suspect for the Lockerbie bombing.
This was because on 3rd July in 1988 the USS “Vincennes”, patrolling in the Mediterranean (and in Iranian waters), had shot down Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian airbus carrying Hajj pilgrims, killing all 290 civilian passengers on board plus the crew. There appeared little doubt, therefore, that Lockerbie was Iran’s revenge.
But the fact that the Libyan government freely handed over two suspects made a case. The fact also that I had lived for many years in an Islamic society had informed me of the trans-national loyalty that suffuses Islam in the Middle East, so like many I conceded that Libyan involvement was possible. Many shrugged and accepted that.
One of the important consequences, however, of the shooting down of the Iranian Airbus was that Iranian oil was made unavailable to the US. There were sanctions in place against Libya also at that point, so Libyan oil was similarly out of reach. Remember this point. It is probably critical. It could explain one of the big “whys”.
The progression of my thoughts over the years on this affair probably mirrors that of many others.
I was very soon sure that al-Megrahi was a scapegoat. No man operating alone could have achieved what he was charged with. A scapegoat for whom, however, was the next question. A scapegoat for Ghaddafi’s part in this seemed initially plausible but later developments made this seem less than a complete answer. As time went on and other disturbing information leaked out, this became no kind of an answer at all. So the first “why” rears its head.
Why, after a period during which it was widely assumed that Iran had taken down Pan Am Flight 103, were two Libyans, under no sort of previous suspicion, abruptly offered as culprits?
Whose interests did this development serve? That is the only important question. Some have suggested that everybody was a winner. Iran’s relationship with the US was resumed. Libya shortly thereafter had Western sanctions against it lifted and Iranian and Libyan oil stated flowing westwards again. The only little question remaining was the “honour” one. Was Iran offered revenge for the shooting down of Iran Airbus 655?
We will return to that.
But all the while suspicion grew of dirty deals between the US and the UK on one side and a variety of Middle Eastern interests on the other.
A decade later, the Lockerbie affair continues to unravel. Even a superficial examination of the case against al-Megrahi and the “evidence” put forward to support it immediately demolishes it.
The initial public euphoria built on a hunger to find someone guilty for the Lockerbie atrocity has faded. In the cold light of day, the travesty of a trial which proceeded on evidence that would have been laughed out of a Sheriff Court becomes internationally recognised as a disgrace and a stain on Scotland’s reputation.
Over the years, my opinion of the evidence that put al-Megrahi behind bars has gravitated from a belief that it was very dubious to a conviction now that most of it is absurd.
My initial judgement – that they would have caught the right man, but the evidence was hardly compelling – was probably shared by many. This perception has lingered on, as has a notion held by others that maybe he didn’t place the bomb but somehow he was “involved in it”. Therefore it’s all right to lock him up.
No, it’s not. If he didn’t place the bomb on a plane in Malta, as charged, he should have been acquitted. That’s all.
That’s the way our law and our courts are supposed to work – and generally do at the hands of juries.
So let’s have a look at the first absurdity. Those of you who have flown about or changed planes will know what I’m talking about. We are expected to believe that Al Megrahi placed a case with a bomb in on a plane In Malta which then, presumably on time, flew to Germany where the case was, as planned , transferred to another plane which set off for London. On time. The plot doesn’t work otherwise. Now my experience of intercontinental air travel tells me that there would have been a significant chance that the case loaded in Malta would have set off on a plane for Madrid or turned up three days later in Sumatra. The bomb, we are informed, was specifically timed to go off just after the plane cleared the UK mainland and went out over the Atlantic, but a slight flight delay meant it went off over Lockerbie. (This much is probably true. No pesky searches for evidence would have been possible.)
But how they would manage this accurately from Malta has never been spelled out. It is, in fact, a completely absurd proposal. Nearly as absurd as an initial suggestion, quickly withdrawn, that the bomb was triggered by achieving a certain altitude which implied that the plane had gone from Malta to Germany at hedge height. Altitude activation could of course have been achieved had the bomb been loaded in London, but the plot didn’t stretch to paying someone to say they had seen al-Megrahi in London.
The next absurdity is the fragment of bomb timer mechanism. The size of a finger nail, this apparently was found somewhere in a wild and hilly area of over 300 square miles of the South of Scotland and North West of England.
I wouldn’t have been able to find it in my front garden. The delay in finding it, the absence of any trace of explosives on it, the opinion of experts that it couldn’t have survived the explosion, the strange numbering of it when it was inserted into a list of other exhibits causing them all to be renumbered and even a filmed statement by an ex CIA operative that it was manufactured in a CIA laboratory, demolishes this as a piece of evidence.
Of course the significance of this little piece of hokum was that it had little threads of a shirt on it. So we are told.
This shirt is the only piece of “evidence” that linked Al Megrahi to the bombing. The fact that it seems entirely possible that al-Megrahi was not in Malta the day the shirt apparently was sold to him shouldn’t be allowed to cast any doubt on the veracity of this evidence. Especially as it was purchased at great cost. The shopkeeper who says he sold the shirt to Al Megrahi was given $2million for giving his evidence and his brother was given $1million to keep him on message. There are disturbing reports alleging that Scottish police officers were involved in the bargaining exercise here. Lord Fraser described the Maltese shopkeeper as “an apple short of a picnic”. Yet on this man’s testament another man was imprisoned for life on the basis of no robust evidence whatsover.
We don’t have to ask “why” this $2million bribe was given. But we have to ask “why” it wasn’t mentioned in court and “why” the defence had no whiff of it. It wasn’t mentioned at the trial because it would have rendered the evidence from the Maltese shopkeeper completely inadmissible. There would have been no case whatsoever against al-Megrahi.
The next “why” is why the break-in at the baggage handling unit at Heathrow a few hours before the fateful flight was kept from the court and out of the public domain until after the trial? That of course would have dealt a fatal blow to the fanciful Malta proposal.
It is very easy, however, to see “why” the UK and US governments in particular are doggedly defending the indefensible conduct of this whole affair.
Because what we are looking at here is not just a wrongful conviction, a mistake. Mistakes happen and Governments’ first impulse is to defend the verdicts reached in their courts. What we are arguably looking at here, however, is a very deliberate miscarriage of justice masterminded by governments to send an innocent man – and a man they know to be innocent – to jail. Should this be established the implications are terrifying.
And another “why” and the biggest why in my eyes, is why our media is ignoring what facts there are in this sorry issue. We are treated daily to a range of offensive, ignorant and infantile comment on al-Megrahi and Lockerbie in our newspapers. Many of these journalists know they are spouting rubbish. Our great, brave, campaigning press that will leave no stone unturned in exposing politicians’ expense fiddles or in detailing the sexual frolics of sports persons and showbiz nonentities refuse to deal with this growing scandal. This is hugely important. Does our “free” press now hold that defending those in power is one of their obligations? Why? And what kind of pressure is being put on them – and from what source?
The current and continual “why” now is the swirling doubts about the abandoned appeal and absolute imperative that this whole issue be blown apart publicly.
Again we have to ask ourselves: Whose interest is served by the suppression of the truth? And again we can line up the US, the UK and the previous Libyan regime. How convenient now the imposed silence of Muammar Ghaddafi!
Did the Libyan authorities suggest al-Megrahi abandon his appeal? A reversal of the verdict and a demolition of the fabricated evidence against him would have gone a way to supporting theories of a Libya/UK/US plot.
What complications is Kenny MacAskill struggling with? There is nothing in this for the Scottish Government but grief.
Finally, there is, of course, another big “why”.
Why did Pan Am Flight 103 take off from Germany only two thirds full? It was reported that it had already been booked up full, like air traffic all across Europe carrying thousands home to the US for Christmas. But for some reason American embassy, military and intelligence personnel were told at the last minute to take other flights. Did somebody know that plane was coming down? That very plane, because nobody was taken off any other flight.
Was blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 what Iran got? And is that absolutely abominable possibility the reason why we can’t get to the truth?