Magnus Linklater and the ‘conspiracy theorist’ slur

Here we go again. In his column in last Friday’s Times, Magnus Linklater once again wrongly accused Abdelbaset’s supporters of alleging a grand conspiracy to convict him, involving judges, detectives and the intelligence agencies. As I’ve told Magnus before, that’s not what we (Jim Swire, Justice for Megrahi, I and others) are saying. The article follows in italics, with my comments in non-italics.

Jim Swire has been relentless, resolute, and single-minded in pursuit of his campaign for the truth about the Lockerbie atrocity that killed his daughter, Flora.

In all the 25 years that he has spent examining the case, travelling the world to track down evidence, he has never been less than dignified, or given way in public to the frustration and anger he must have felt towards those who stood in the way of his quest. He has dealt with inquiries from the media with patience and courtesy. Throughout, what has driven him is solely the need to find justice in the name of his daughter.

The reasons he now gives for stepping back from his cause are characteristically honest.

“My campaign has been my means of survival,” he says. “I think Flora would be saying ‘You’ve done your very best dad. It’s time to leave it to others, to younger men’.”

Such dedication is hard to challenge: taking issue with Dr Swire’s arguments is to venture into intensely personal territory. Yet his central contention — that Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi was innocent, and that Libya was not involved in the Lockerbie bombing — remains short of the kind of evidence that would stand up in court.

For all the many thousands of words that have been written suggesting that the prosecution case was flawed, and that the Scottish legal system presided over a spectacular miscarriage of justice, the alternative theories are well short of sustaining proof.

It is one thing to challenge the evidence on which al-Megrahi was convicted, another to sustain a case that is not, itself, threadbare.

Dr Swire believes that the bomb was not put on board Pan Am 103 on Malta, but that it was smuggled onto the plane at Heathrow Airport. This, along with other theories, was advanced at the time of the trial, examined, and dismissed for want of evidence.

As Magnus should know (because he claims to have read Megrahi: You are my Jury), key evidence regarding Heathrow was not disclosed to either Megrahi’s trial or his first appeal. As he should also know, the defence put forward compelling evidence that the bomb was contained in the mysterious suitcase seen by Heathrow loader John Bedford, yet it was dismissed by the judges, who, in effect, reversed the burden of proof on this matter.

It may, as Dr Swire, maintains, be the truth, but so far no reliable witness has come forward to confirm it. Yet surely this must be as important as challenging the prosecution case. After all, the al-Megrahi defence suggests that eight Scottish judges, five Lords Advocate, senior Scottish detectives and US intelligence agencies were involved in what must count as one of the most serious conspiracy theories of our time, to deflect blame away from Syria or Iran and point towards Libya.

For the avoidance of doubt, the opening of chapter 6 of Scotland’s Shame reads:

“Let us be clear, there was no grand conspiracy by the intelligence services, senior politicians, police officers, prosecutors and judges to subvert the Lockerbie investigation and frame Megrahi and Libya. Conspiracies, of course, do sometimes happen, but seldom ones involving so many diverse parties.

“There is, however, no doubt that important evidence was suppressed, that US intelligence agents interfered with the crash site and that some of the evidence against Megrahi was highly dubious. It can also be reasonably argued that the case against Libya was concocted in order to serve the agenda of the government of US president George H. W. Bush, who came to power less than a month after the bombing.

“In all these things the Scottish authorities were, very likely, no more than unwitting accomplices. There are allegations – not made by this book and so far unproven – that certain of their representatives acted illegally. If they did, it was almost certainly in order to secure the conviction of people they sincerely believed to be guilty, and not because they were party to a wider plot to protect the real culprits and convict innocents.”

Conspiracy theorist is a label used by politicians and lazy journalists who have run out of reasonable arguments, in order to denigrate and marginalise those who challenge the official line on controversial issues. Funnily enough, the lord advocate uses it too.

Of course, at one time that might have been achieved in the best forum of all, a court of law. Yet al-Megrahi chose to drop his appeal, a decision that has never been properly explained. It remains the weakest plank in the al-Megrahi campaign and for Dr Swire, it must, to this day, be a cause for anguish and frustration.

As Magnus well knows, the explanation for Abdelbaset dropping his appeal is quite simple: he had advanced cancer and was desperate to get back to his family. On 10 August 2009 he met with the delegation of Libyan officials who had just been to visit the justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, and some of his civil servants. Obedi told Abdelbaset that MacAskill had privately indicated to him (Obedi) that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if he dropped the appeal. If Magnus had been stuck in a foreign jail with advanced cancer, would he have reacted differently to such pressure? Answers on a postcard please.

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