Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Ali Megrahi, who has died aged 60, was known to the world as ‘the Lockerbie bomber’; an unrepentant terrorist and senior Libyan intelligence agent. To many who have studied the case, he was the victim of the most shocking miscarriage of justice of recent years. He was convicted in January 2001 for the murder of the 270 Lockerbie victims, a verdict described by the United Nations trial observer as ‘incomprehensible’.
The son of a customs officer, he was born in Tripoli in 1952, the third of eight siblings. Until the age of nine, his family shared their home with two others. His UNESCO administered school provided daily vitamin supplements, which helped fend off the chest problems that had plagued him as a young child.
After finishing school in 1970, the year after the revolution that bought Colonel Muammar Gadafy to power, he briefly trained as a marine engineer at Rumney Technical College in Cardiff. He hoped this would be a steppingstone to a career ship’s captain or navigator, but his eyesight proved too poor. His hopes dashed, he dropped out of the course and returned to Tripoli where he joined the state airline Libya Arab Airlines to train as a flight dispatcher. He completed his training and gained his dispatchers licence in the United States, and was subsequently promoted to become LAA’s chief dispatcher and then Head of Operations at Tripoli Airport. Keen to improve his education, he enrolled as a part time external student at the University of Benghazi to study geography. Having come top in his year, he was invited to join the teaching staff on the promise that he would he would be sent to the US obtain a master’s degree in climatology. When the promise failed to materialise, he opted to double his salary by returning to LAA. In 1986 he was temporarily appointed head of airline security, to oversee the transfer of personnel from the state intelligence service the JSO to security staff positions within the LAA (the JSO having previously been directly responsible for the airline’s security). During this assignment, which lasted less than a year, he was formally seconded to the JSO. Although he was generally described as a senior intelligence agent, he always insisted that the secondment was his only direct involvement with the JSO. At his trial the Crown was unable to produce any hard evidence to the contrary and the allegation rested solely on the testimony of an erratic Libyan CIA informant, Magid Giaka, who also claimed that Colonel Gadafy was a freemason.
His next job was part-time coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies, a small research institute, although his salary continued to be paid by LAA. At around this time he took advantage of his Government’s more relaxed attitude to private enterprise by becoming a partner in a trading company called ABH. He never denied that he was fairly well connected among Libya’s elite, and that he used these connections to his advantage in business. The company’s primary business was the purchase of spares for LAA aircraft. Since this activity was sometimes in breach of US sanctions, he was issued with a passport in a false name, which, unlike his regular passport, did not betray his airline background.
He maintained that it came as a complete surprise when, in November 1991, he and his former LAA colleague Lamin Fhimah were indicted for the bombing. The case was built around clothing from Malta, which he was alleged to have placed in a brown Samsonite suitcase along with a bomb concealed within a Toshiba radio-cassette player. Blast damaged fragments of clothing were identified by Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who recalled a Libyan man buying them a few weeks before the bombing. More than two years after the event Gauci picked up a photo of Megrahi as resembling the purchaser. The purchase date was narrowed down to November 23rd and December 7th. On the latter date Megrahi stayed at the Holiday Inn hotel a few minutes away from Gauci’s shop.
A small piece of circuit board found within one of the clothing fragments was matched to timing devices made by a Swiss company called MEBO, which rented part of its Zurich office to ABH. Its owner Edwin Bollier claimed that only 20 such timers were made, all of which were supplied to Libya.
Documents from Frankfurt Airport appear to indicate that an unaccompanied suitcase was transferred to the doomed flight Pan Am 103 from Air Malta flight KM180. The night before the bombing Megrahi travelled to Malta using the passport. His LAA colleague Majid Giaka later claimed to have seen Megrahi and Fhimah walk out of Malta’s Luqa Airport with a brown Samsonite case. Megrahi returned to Tripoli from Luqa the following morning on a flight that departed around the same time as KM180. According to the Crown, he and Fhimah conspired to smuggle the suitcase onto KM180 during the overlapping check-in periods.
Interviewed by ABC Television shortly after the indictments were issued, he denied making the trip and his connection to MEBO, fearing that telling the truth might have given the US government an excuse to attack Libya, as it had five years earlier. The lies were to cost him dear, making him think better of giving evidence at his trial. Although this spared him a potentially torrid cross-examination, it also denied him the opportunity to introduce the wealth of evidence that supported his claims of innocence. This included proof of his sanctions busting activities and an innocent explanation for the false passport, which he willingly handed over to the Crown.
When held up to the light, the Crown case was found to be riddled with holes. Gauci consistently described the clothes purchaser as around 50 years old, at least six feet tall and dark skinned, whereas Megrahi was five feet eight inches tall, light skinned and, at the time of the incident, was only 36. The shopkeeper never made a positive identification of Megrahi and, on selecting his photo, said that he was at least ten years younger than the clothes buyer. Gauci was certain that it was raining when the man left the shop, yet, whereas rainfall was recorded at the relevant time on November 23rd, none was recorded on December 7th. The Libyan CIA supergrass Majid Giaka was revealed to be so unreliable that the Agency considered sacking him. He only implicated his former colleagues two and a half years after Lockerbie when, having fled Libya, he was desperate to gain asylum in the US. It could not have escaped his notice that a $4 million reward was on offer. Air Malta’s baggage security procedures were unusually strict and records appeared to prove that no unaccompanied bags were loaded onto KM180.
The Lockerbie trial judges accepted that the failure to explain how the bomb had been planted constituted “a major difficulty” for the Crown case, yet were nevertheless satisfied of Megrahi’s guilt. Equally perverse was their acquittal of Fhimah, as the Crown had insisted that Megrahi could not have acted without him. The judges declared Giaka to be unreliable and not credible yet accepted his uncorroborated claim that Megrahi was a JSO member.
Following the failure of his first appeal against conviction, from March 2002 he was held in isolation for three years in a specially created unit within Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison, dubbed Gadafy’s Café. In 2005 he was transferred to a low security wing of Greenock Prison, where he was placed among long-term prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences. Although initially in trepidation about the move, he was soon accepted by staff and inmates alike, very many of whom believed him to be innocent. He was cheered by the support that he received from a number of highly respected public figures, most notably Nelson Mandela and Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the bombing.
In 2007, following a four year review, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred his case back to the Appeal Court having identified six grounds of a possible miscarriage of justice. Notably, among these was that the original judgment was unreasonable. Another was the discovery that, prior to picking out Megrahi’s photograph, Tony Gauci had expressed an interest in being paid a reward and that subsequent to the conviction the US Government paid him at least $2 million.
Frequent holdups, many caused by the Crown, delayed the start of the appeal until April 2009, by which time Megrahi had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He was convinced that the stress of his wrongful incarceration played a major part in the onset of the disease. Shortly afterwards he applied to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to be released on compassionate grounds. Until the diagnosis he had always dreamed of clearing his name and returning to his family, but eventually he felt compelled between the two. Although not formally required to abandon the appeal in order to gain compassionate release, Libyan minister Abdelati al-Obedi told him that MacAskill had indicated that it would be easier to grant the application if he dropped the appeal.
By the time of his release, on August 20th 2009, best estimates suggested that he might have only three months to live. The fact that he survived for over two and a half years was doubtless down to the care and support that he received in Libya and the knowledge that every day that he lived as a free man was a tiny sliver of justice reclaimed.
Misreporting and misinformation haunted him until the end, including a rehashed, 18 year-old, unsubstantiated allegation that he had been involved in chemical weapons procurement. It was also claimed that, at the time of his conviction, he had $1.8 million in a Swiss bank account (the true amount was $23,000, a figure that had remained unchanged since 1993).
As one of the few British people who got to know Megrahi well, I can say that he was a warm and humorous man who, considering his predicament, was remarkably patient, and free of rancour towards those responsible for his conviction. He is survived by his wife Aisha and their five children.
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, born on 1 April 1952, died 20 May 2012.