Christmas come but once a year and when it does we can be sure that Magnus Linklater will produce an error-strewn article for the Scottish edition of The Times echoing the proclamations of the Lord Advocate that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was justly convicted, and that the Crown and its representatives have acted with complete propriety throughout. And so it was yesterday.
Mr Linklater’s well-worn trick is to brand Abdelbaset’s supporters as conspiracy theorists who allege that the Crown officials, police, trial judges, governments and intelligence services hatched a grand plot to frame Megrahi and Libya and shift the blame from the original suspects. Having erected this straw man, he slays him with a barrage of half-truths, omissions and non-sequiturs, then cites his death as irrefutable evidence that Abdelbaset was guilty.
Below in italics are extracts from Mr Linklater’s latest articles, each of which is followed by my rebuttal.
- A review of the Lockerbie bombing case by Scottish investigators has concluded that there is “not a shred of evidence” to support claims that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted.
The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, who, I think it’s safe to assume, are rather more independent than the investigators cited by Mr Linklater, found no fewer than six grounds for believing that the conviction may have been unsafe.
- Ever since Megrahi was convicted in 2001 there have been allegations that evidence was manipulated to implicate Libya, steering suspicion away from Middle Eastern states.
The central allegations of Abdelbaset’s supporters are not that there evidence was manipulated in order to shift the focus of the investigation away from the real culprits. Rather they are: a) that the evidence against him didn’t stand up; and b) that the Crown withheld crucial exculpatory evidence. Both claims were supported by the SCCRC’s review.
- Scottish prosecutors have been accused of deliberately ignoring evidence that the bomb was put aboard Pan Am Flight 103 at Heathrow rather than at Malta, and that the timer fragment, the principal piece of forensic evidence against Libya, was planted or altered.
Wrong again. The central point about the Heathrow evidence was that it was not properly explored at trial while the central points about the fragment are a) that the Crown’s crucial claim that it matched timers supplied to Libya by Mebo can be proven forensically to be false; and b) the Crown failed to disclose evidence that the scientist who spoke to the match had overseen tests that demonstrated a clear disparity between the fragment and those timers. The fragment may, or may not have been planted. There is no evidence that it was altered and, to the best of my knowledge, the only figure of significance to claim that it was is the frequently unreliable Edwin Bollier of Mebo.
- Last night Frank Mulholland, QC, the Lord Advocate, said: “During the 26-year-long inquiry not one Crown Office investigator or prosecutor has raised a concern about the evidence in this case . . . our focus remains on the evidence, and not on speculation and supposition.”
The Lord Advocate and Mr Linklater are ignoring the fact that a number of police officers have privately raised concerns about the evidence.
- Evidence on the bomb itself, and the crucial timer fragment that linked the attack to Libya, found three weeks after Pan Am 103 exploded, have undermined the conspiracy theory.
Not true: according to the prosecution, the fragment was not found three weeks after the bombing, but five months later, on 12 May 1989.
- Critics say the fragment was either planted at the site, exchanged later for another, or was tampered with to show a link to Libya that was never there.
Again, this misrepresents the case made by Abdelbaset’s supporters, which is that: a) the fragment did not, as the Crown claimed, match the timers supplied to Libya by Mebo; and b) the Crown withheld key evidence. In the face of these facts, the provenance of the fragment is secondary. Whilst, when the numerous anomalies surrounding its provenance (all of which Mr Linklater ignores) are taken in to consideration, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it was planted, the case for Abdelbaset does not, as Mr Linklater implies, rely upon that claim. To reiterate, the allegation that the fragment was tampered with or exchanged is Mr Bollier’s alone.
- Police are adamant, however, that the fragment was under supervision. They point out that the evidence would have to have been planted within 23 days, requiring knowledge of all the evidence to come — including Megrahi, whose existence was then unknown.
If there was a deliberate plot to frame Libya for the bombing, it would almost certainly have been led by the CIA and the Scottish authorities would not have known about it. Furthermore, it would have begun soon after the bombing. An unnamed US intelligence official briefed the Sunday Telegraph as early as January 1989 that the Libyans were involved. It would have been relatively simple for them to plant evidence early on in the investigation behind the backs of the police. Mr Megrahi’s existence was unknown to the police, but declassified CIA cables revealed at trial show he was known to the CIA well before Lockerbie.
- Set against the speculation are facts that have never been disproved: the presence of Megrahi in Malta, carrying a false passport, on the day the prosecution says the bomb went on board flight KM180 to Frankfurt; Fhimah arriving with him; and their subsequent telephone conversations.
None of these facts are disputed and Abdelbaset never sought to disprove them. As Mr Linklater well knows, it is their interpretation that is disputed.
- Critics have argued that, because there is no direct evidence to show that the bomb was inserted at Luqa airport in Malta, the more likely theory is that it was loaded on at Heathrow.
A broken padlock found on a security gate during a critical period on the night before the bombing is said to be persuasive evidence that this is when the bomb was inserted into the system.
However, sources close to the investigation are now adamant that the timetable of events is against it. The security gap was between 22.05 on December 20, 1988, and 00.30 on December 21 , when Raymond Manly, a security guard, found the broken padlock. Another 13½ hours were to go by before the loading of a container with luggage for Pan Am 103 began. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for a suspect bag to remain undetected and there is no evidence to show that it did.
The claim that the bomb originated from Heathrow does not rely on the claim that the bombers were responsible for the break-in. Both I and Dr Morag Kerr, who has done more research than anyone on Heathrow, believe that the break-in may be entirely coincidental. The key point about the break-in is that – like so much other evidence of potential use to the defence – it was not disclosed to Abdelbaset’s trial lawyers.
10. Yet there is another aspect of the case that makes the counter-theory even harder to sustain. Most critics claim that the investigation was “directed” to Libya and away from Palestinian terrorists to suit western interests in the Gulf war. For this to make sense, any corruption of the evidence would have had to take place after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
Most informed critics don’t claim that the investigation was steered towards Libya in order to serve Western interests in the Gulf war. We merely believe that the Gulf war provided an additional motive. To reiterate, we do not believe that that motive was share by the police and prosecutors who, for all their alleged faults, sincerely believed they had got the right people
11. Set against all that speculation are hard facts that have never been disproved: the remarkable importation by a Libyan company in the period leading up to December 1988 of 29,700 models of the RTSF16 Toshiba cassette recorder.
The boss of the Electric General Company, which imported the goods, was later identified as Said Rashid, al-Megrahi’s associate who was senior to him in Libyan intelligence.
There is nothing remarkable in an electrical company importing electrical goods. The RT-SF16 model had been in production since October 1985 and in the three years from then until October 1988, only 11 per cent of total global production was supplied to Libya. Furthermore, many of the remainder were sold elsewhere in the Middle East, including in countries in which the original suspects in the bombing, the PFLP-GC, had members.
A possibility that neither the prosecution nor the Libyans were motivated to raise at trial (and which Mr Linklater ignores) was that Libya had supplied one of the RT-SF16s to the PFLP-GC.
Interestingly, one of the declassified CIA cables showed that the CIA knew of Abdelbaset’s relationship with Said Rashid and of the latter’s involvement with the electrical company. Strangely, the CIA had originally redacted this information. Could it be that they didn’t want it known that they had foreknowledge of another element of the Crown’s case? As Mr Linklater would say, we may never know.
12. Then there is the unexplained presence of al-Megrahi himself in Malta on the day the prosecution say the bomb went on board KM 180 to Frankfurt, arriving from Tripoli on December 20, the day before the bombing, carrying a false passport in the name of Ahmed Khalifa Abdusamad.
Mr Fhimah, his co-accused, the former Libyan Arab Airlines station manager at Luqa, was on the same flight. The next day al-Megrahi, from his hotel room in Malta, called Mr Fhimah at his home.
The following morning “Abdusamad” was checked in on Libyan Arab Airlines flight LN147 back to Tripoli. Thus al-Megrahi was at Luqa airport just as KM 180 was checking in. By the time the bomb arrived at Frankfurt, he was back at home.
No explanation for the false passport was given, although many years later al-Megrahi was to claim that he was on a sanctions-busting trip. However, he never used the passport again.
Abdelbaset’s presence in Malta was is not unexplained: he said that went there to look at Mr Fhimah’s new travel agency business and meet his Maltese business partner, Vincent Vassallo, and to buy a carpet. He may also have had a romantic liaison. Mr Vassallo confirmed the meeting and said that Mr Fhimah had introduced Mr Megrahi under his real name – hardly the actions of men planning a bombing. Mr Megrahi spent the night at the Holiday Inn, which he had stayed at just a fortnight earlier under his real name. Had he been a terrorist, he would surely have lain low at one of the island’s Libyan government-owned hotels.
There is nothing incriminating in someone calling a friend. While it’s true that Abdelbaset never used the passport again, he kept it for eleven years then handed it over as evidence for the trial – again, hardly the actions of a guilty man.