Private Eye reports on Lockerbie and the shelving of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill

The latest edition of Private Eye (no. 1366) carries the following article.

The Scottish government has quietly shelved for at least a year its controversial Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, heading off an escalating row over the need for corroboration before bringing a case to trial, until after September’s independence referendum.

The move also parks another reform, which would have made it easier to have the highly dubious conviction of Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, the only man jailed for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, referred back to the appeal court – just as relatives of some of the victims were about to launch an unprecedented legal action to do just that.

Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of the 270 who died in the attack, is leading 25 relatives of Lockerbie victims who are about to make a new a new application to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) to send Megrahi’s case back to the appeal court for a third time. The SNP government has repeatedly refused calls for an inquiry into the festering scandal, claiming the appeal court is the only appropriate forum for airing the issues. Yet it has quietly stacked the cards against any appeal.

Eye readers will recall that the SCCRC had already found strong grounds for believing there had been a miscarriage of justice, but Megrahi, who had terminal cancer, abandoned his second appeal five years ago in order to return to Libya to be with his family. Since then there has been fresh scientific evidence which points to his innocence. There has also been mounting concern about the amount of material also suggesting he was not the bomber which had been withheld from Megrahi’s 2001 trial, and his first appeal the following year, by Scotland’s prosecuting authority, the Crown Office.

The application by the families will be breaking new territory. First they will have to prove they have a “legitimate interest” in pursuing an appeal on behalf of Megrahi – a task made easier by the fact that Megrahi’s family supports the move. They will then have to prove the case is in the “public interest” – a far more straightforward argument. However, thanks to an arcane piece of legislation the biggest hurdle for them is that before deciding whether to hear a case referred to it by the SCCRC, the appeal court must have regard to “the need for finality and certainty in the determination of criminal proceedings”.

“Finality· and certainty”‘ isn’t defined in the legislation, but it means the court has to decide whether the threat of endless appeals and challenges outweighs SCCRC concern that there may have been an injustice. With one first failed appeal and the second abandoned, the court might simply say enough is enough – especially  when Megrahi himself is dead. That “finality” test was to have been abolished in the new Criminal Justice Bill, but unfortunately for the Lockerbie families it now it remains the law.

 

 

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Response to Richard Marquise’s Scottish Review article

The current issue of the Scottish Review carries an article by the head of the FBI’s Lockerbie investigation, Richard Marquise, which critiques the three recently broadcast Aljazeera programmes on Lockerbie. The second of the programmes was originally broadcast on the day Megrahi: you are my Jury was published. It presented evidence that, contrary to the Crown’s claims, the circuit board fragment PT/35b could not have originated from one of the 20 MST-13 timers supplied by Mebo to Libya. Mr Marquise writes as follows. My comments are in regular font:

[Programme] two was primarily dedicated to proving that a fragment of a timer (hereinafter called Pt-35 for the Scottish evidence designation) was not part of the timer that was provided to the LIS. The investigation had determined that PT-35 had been blasted into a piece of cloth which had been contained in the bomb suitcase. The British forensic examiner was criticised for not testing this fragment for explosive residue. It should be noted that PT-35 was found within a fragment of cloth which did have explosive residue on it.

No evidence was presented to the court that the cloth fragment PI995 was tested for residues and nothing in the forensic material disclosed by the Crown suggests that it was.

Once MEBO was identified as the manufacturer of the timer from which PT-35 had come, principals of that company verified this fragment had come from one of 20 timers they had manufactured for the LIS in 1985 and 1986.

In fact Mebo’s Bollier and Lumpert said that the fragment appeared to come from one of the timers. They never claimed to have proof that it did. (Bollier later claimed that it was from a prototype circuit board and not from one of the boards used in the Libyan timers, but this unlikely because the prototypes were grey/brown. Whereas the fragment was green.)

All of them were delivered to Libyan officials, in East Germany and Tripoli. No other timers of this sort were ever made or given to anyone but the LIS. The MEBO technician who had actually made these timers said that he first had to create, by hand soldering, a template for the timers. Once he created the solder lines he was then able to stamp out the 20 copies. Once these were made no other copies were ever made of this type timer.

Al Jazeera showed an interview of a forensic scientist who had allegedly (I do not know what specimens he actually compared) determined that the metallic composition of PT-35 did not match that found on the MEBO timers provided to Libya. He also claimed to have replicated in the laboratory the same or greater temperatures than the fragment would have been exposed to during an explosion to make this determination.

The expert, Dr Jess Cawley, compared PT/35b with DP/347a, which was a control sample one of the boards used in the Libyan timers. His work showed that PT/35b’s circuitry was coated with pure tin, whereas DP/347a’s was coated with a tin-lead alloy. The boards used in the Libyan timers were all made for Mebo by Thuring. During the preparations for Abdelbaset’s second appeal we established that Thuring only ever used tin-lead alloy and had never used pure tin.

It is difficult to exactly replicate the explosion in a laboratory setting. I am not a metallurgist and the FBI was not allowed to examine the composition of the fragment. However, the identification of the fragment was through comparison of the tracking (solder) lines which determined the MEBO timer was an exact match to it. Clearly, if the scientist interviewed for the programme had the requisite technical skills, there would be a disagreement among experts.

It might be difficult to replicate an explosion, but it is not difficult to create the same or even greater heat energy than is created by an explosion. This is what Dr Cawley did and his results showed that the heat of an explosion could not account for the metallurgical difference between the fragment and the Libyan timer boards. The tracking lines of the fragment were indeed virtually identical in pattern to the of the boards used in the Libyan timers, but Crown expert Allan Feraday went further, saying that, not only the tracking pattern, but also the material of the fragment was ‘similar in all respects’ to the Libyan timer boards. ‘Similar in all respects’ was a phrase used throughout his forensic report when describing items that were clearly of common origin.

There was no disagreement among scientists: Dr Cawley’s results merely replicated the results of tests overseen by Mr Feraday in 1991 (which the Crown failed to disclosed) and those done by scientists instructed by the police in 1992.

Many trials result in ‘dueling experts’. However, this is a matter for the court. Every day, in courtrooms around the world, ‘experts’ looking at the same evidence arrive at totally opposite conclusions. The prosecution, to counter, would offer ‘evidence’ that the solder tracking lines are microscopically identical to the other MEBO timers given to Libya and therefore the PT-35 fragment is identical to the other MEBO timers provided to Libya. That is the nature of expert testimony. It would have then been up to the judge or jury to reach a conclusion. Presenting one ‘expert’ opinion was a disservice to the viewers.

Again, there were no duelling experts. All the scientists’ work demonstrates conclusively that there was an irreconcilable metallurgical difference the fragment and the boards used in the Libyan timers. Crucially, the Crown fail to disclose Mr Feraday’s 1991 tests results, which directly contradicted his claim that the fragment and the control sample Thuring board were ‘similar in all respects’.

Mr Marquise does not mention the fact that the Scottish police knew from as early as March 1990, well before the fragment was linked to Mebo, that its pure tin coating was very unusual. In 1992 they commissioned tests that proved that the control sample Thuring board had a tin-lead coating, which begs the question: why did the Crown persist in running a case that was predicated on the claim that PT/35b originated from one of the 20 Libyan timers?

 

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Review of Aljazeera documentary ‘Lockerbie: What Really Happened?’

Aljazeera last night premiered its long-awaited documentary Lockerbie: What Really Happened? The programme’s broad thrust, with which I agree, is that the bombing was ordered by Iran and carried out by the PFLP-CG, with help from Hezbollah. It also suggests that Libya may have had a role, which I don’t rule out.

Before commenting further, I should make a declaration of interest: I was paid consultant and interviewee for the producers’ previous Aljazeera programme Lockerbie: Case Closed, (which you can view here) which was broadcast on the day that Megrahi: You are my Jury was published, and was also a paid consultant during the development phase of this one, although I was not involved with the production itself. The most significant discoveries I made during the development phase were of no great interest to the producers, so I took them to Channel 4 News, who took a different view and commissioned a special report, which was broadcast on 20 December (you can view it here).

Last night’s programme has generated a lot of media coverage, but contains little that hasn’t already been reported previously. Most of the coverage has led on the allegations made in the film by Abolghasem Mesbahi, the German-based Iranian defector, who alleged that the bombing was carried out in revenge for the US shootdown of Iran Air flight 655. His claims have been reported as if they are new, but they are not: they originally surfaced in the German media in 1996 or 1997. Mesbahi gave his first broadcast interview about Lockerbie to the German channel ZDF in 2008 and Aljazeera’s interview, which was in fact shot by ZDF, featured in another ZDF documentary last month.

Mesbahi was a former senior official in Iran’s security service, Vevak, and was based in, among other places, Paris and Bonn. In late 1988 he was imprisoned briefly as a suspected US double agent and in 1996 defected. He claimed to have first hand knowledge of the plot that resulted in the 1992 murder, by Iranian agents, of several leading Kurdish separatists in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. His testimony proved crucial in the subsequent trial of some of the Iranians. It was not until some months after his defection that he began to talk about Lockerbie.

Last year I spoke to a leading German journalist who is very familiar with both Mesbahi and the Lockerbie story. While he believes that the evidence that Mesbahi gave in the Mykonos case was credible, he is very sceptical of his claims about Lockerbie.

By Mesbahi’s own admission, all his information about Lockerbie was second-hand. His accounts to the German police (documented in memos disclosed to the Abdelbaset’s lawyers pre-trial) were erratic. Some of his claims were unlikely, others patently nonsense. He claimed that the Iranian government initiated the operation and Iranian foreign minister Velajati held talks with Colonel Gadaffi, during which they’d agreed on a joint operation in which Iran would be responsible for the explosives and Libya for the electronics. There was no reason for Iran to rely on the Libyans to sort out the electronics, when they had plenty of other bomb makers at their disposal. He did not mention the PFLP-GC and instead suggested that the operation was not only commissioned by the Iranian government, but also largely undertaken by Iranian agents.

He said that the technical instructions for the bomb came from the Abu Nidal Organisation. He initially claimed that it was assembled and loaded at Heathrow by Libyan agents who had access to the airport’s ‘secure area’ (by which, presumably, he meant airside), but later claimed that it was assembled there by a ANO members. He also said that the bomb was activated by a chemical detonator, which again seems unlikely. He reported that the Iranians sent explosives to London after which the green light was given to the Libyans to deliver the electronic components. This, a source told him, was done by Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah only days before the bombing. However, there is no evidence that they were in London at any point. It is clear that Abdelbaset was in Prague and Switzerland from 9th to 17th December and that he and Lamin were in Malta on the 20th and 21st. I suspect that Mesbahi stitched together a story that would implicate Iran, while accommodating the official ‘Libya-did-it’ narrative.

Another disappointing aspect of the programme was the prominence it gave to the claims of the Operation Bird reports, about which I have written previously (here and here). Some of the reports’ key allegations are, in my view, unlikely, in particular the claim that the PFLP-GC’s German ringleader, Hafez Dalkamoni, attended a crucial planning meeting in Malta in October 1988. This claim is contradicted by documentary and witness evidence gathered by the BKA, which is far stronger than the evidence that the programme presented to corroborate the claim (essentially, a 1989 Maltese newspaper article).

The film was on more solid ground when it presented US Defence Intelligence Agency reports from 1989 and 1990, which implicated the PFLP-GC and Iran in the attack. Unfortunately, it implied that the reports were secret and stated that they would have been used at Abdelbaset’s second appeal. Neither suggestion was true: the reports had no role in the appeal and are available online having been declassified many years ago.

There were other exaggerated and misleading claims. For example, the commentary stated ‘this programme has learned’ that Tony Gauci had picked out a photo of Mohamed Abu Talb before his partial identification of Abdelbaset. In fact it is well known that, when shown a photo of Abu Talb by the police in October 1989, Gauci said that he resembled the clothes purchaser. The programme also stated that the Toshiba radio-cassette player that housed the Lockerbie bomb was of the same type as the one seized by the BKA during the Autumn Leaves raids, but in fact it was substantially different.

On the plus side, the film contained powerful interviews with former CIA investigator Robert Baer, researcher and campaigner Morag Kerr and, surprisingly, the former Times political editor Robin Oakley. Overall, though, it was a wasted opportunity.

 

 

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Expanded version of my Scottish Review response to Magnus linklater

Earlier this month, together with other supporters of the ‘Lockerbie bomber’, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, I found myself accused in the Scottish Review of being an obsessive conspiracy theorist, impervious to fact or reason. The article’s author, The Times columnist Magnus Linklater, believes that, far from being a stain on Scottish justice, Mr Megrahi’s case ‘triumphantly vindicates’ it.

He argues that we prefer innuendo, myth, and half-truths to straight evidence and independent judgement, yet he displays exactly that preference. For good measure, he misrepresents his opponents, mangles logic and contradicts himself.

He ascribes to us two related conspiracy theories: firstly that the bombing was commissioned by Iran and carried out by the Syrian-based anti-PLO, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command; and, secondly, that there was a grand conspiracy to shift blame to Megrahi and Libya, to which the police, the Crown Office, witnesses, judges, senior politicians and the intelligence services were all willing parties.

A word about that term ‘conspiracy theory’. It’s a cheap and nasty little put-down that herds honest truth-seekers into the same pen the Elvis-was-abducted-by-aliens crowd, while relieving the user of the obligation to properly address the facts. It is also politically loaded – only ever being employed against those who challenge the official line on controversial issues.

If the Iran/PFLP-GC scenario is a conspiracy theory, then so too is what the Crown posited at Mr Megrahi’s trial. That theory went as follows. On 21 December 1988 he placed a suitcase on board Air Malta flight KM180 from Malta to Frankfurt. It contained a bomb concealed within a Toshiba BomBeat radio-cassette player and was labelled for New York on PA103. From Frankfurt it was transferred to a Heathrow then loaded onto PA103.

The suitcase was packed with clothes that Mr Megrahi had bought in Malta on 7 December, from a shopkeeper called Tony Gauci.  He took the case to Malta on 20 December and the following morning flew home on a flight whose check-in time overlapped with KM180’s.  Before leaving, he managed to place the suitcase on KM180 with the help of his former LAA colleague Lamin Fhimah, with whom he stood trial.

The two men fronted companies for the Libyan intelligence service, the JSO. One of them, ABH, co-owned by Megrahi, shared Zurich offices with electronics company Mebo, which, three years before Lockerbie, had supplied 20 unique electronic timers to Libya, one of which was used in the bomb.

As conspiracy theories go, it was pretty lousy. Mr Linklater acknowledges that the case was entirely circumstantial. What he ignores is that, towards the end of the trial, the Crown amended the indictment, quietly dropping many of the conspiracy claims, a tacit admission that much of its theory was unsupported.

What of the evidence? Mr Linklater summarises it as follows, thoroughly exaggerating its strength in the process: ‘It placed al-Megrahi in Malta on the relevant date, travelling in the company of another intelligence operative, holding a false passport, and identified as the purchaser of clothing, later found in the case which held the explosives. Forensic evidence, in the form of a fragment of timer used to detonate the bomb, had been supplied to the Libyans by its Swiss manufacturer. Subsequent evidence also turned up some $1.8 million in al-Megrahi’s personal bank account, calling into question the Libyan government’s description of him as a low-ranking airline worker.’

Megrahi was in Malta on the morning of the bombing, but the more ‘relevant date’ was the one on which the clothes were bought. According to the Crown, this was 7 December when there is no dispute that he was on the island.   Was that really the purchase date? The shopkeeper Tony Gauci couldn’t remember, but was able to provide the police with a number of clues. One was that his brother Paul was at home watching football on TV. Paul was able to narrow down the dates to 23 November and 7 December. Another was that the Christmas lights had not been erected. Official records, unearthed after Mr Megrahi’s conviction, showed that the lights were illuminated on 6 December, which appeared to rule out 7 December. Tony also told the police that, as the man left the shop, he bought an umbrella because it had started to rain. Meteorological data, collected just a few kilometers away at Luqa airport, showed that it rained at the relevant time on 23 November, but not on 7 December. There seemed little doubt, therefore, that 7 December was not the date of the clothes purchase. In convicting Megrahi, the judges relied on Mr Gauci’s trial testimony – which contradicted his police statements – that the purchase was around a fortnight before Christmas; and on the concession by defence witness Major Joseph Mifsud, that, although there was no rain at Luqa on 7 December, there was a theoretical 10 per cent chance that a few drops of rain may have fallen at the shop.

Mr Megrahi was not, as Mr Linklater claims, identified as the clothes purchaser. Mr Gauci fell well short of a positive identification, saying only that Megrahi resembled the man. Other aspects of his description ruled Megrahi out: the man was around 50, 6ft tall, heavily built, dark skinned and with a full head of heair, whereas Megrahi was just 36 at the time, 5ft 8 inches tall, light skinned and with a receding hairline.

The timer fragment – in fact a fragment of circuit board – was certainly a visual match for the circuit boards used in the 20 timers supplied to Libya. The Crown’s main forensic expert said it was both visually and materially ‘similar in all respects’. However, in 2009, when preparing Megrahi’s second appeal, we learnt that the fragment bore a crucial metallurgical difference to the boards in the 20 timers. This difference had been noted in reports by two prosecution scientists. The man who made those boards, a technician at Swiss company Thüring, who was also a prosecution witness, confirmed that the fragment could not have originated from one of those boards.

Megrahi never claimed to be ‘a low-ranking airline worker’. Rather, he said that he held a number of fairly senior positions within the Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA). He also admitted that he used his connections to senior Libyan government and intelligence figures to make a nice living importing goods, mainly through the company ABH. Company records show that it dealt in everything from police cars to schools equipment. Its main business was sourcing spare parts for LAA, which was hit by a US embargo on the sale of aircraft equipment to Libya. He needed the false passport, he said, to conceal his connection to the airline industry (his regular passport gave his profession as flight dispatcher, whereas the false one did not).

There were other planks to the prosecution case, which Mr Linklater does not mention. Shortly after being charged, Mr Megrahi had lied to a US TV interview, denying both a connection to Mebo and travelling to and from Malta on a false passport on 20/21 December. A former LAA colleague and CIA informant Magid Giaka, also testified that, shortly before the bombing, Mr Megrahi arrived in Malta with a brown Samsonite suitcase, which Mr Fhimah helped him to carry out of the airport. Mr Megrahi’s explanation for the lies is that he feared that, if he said anything that confirmed key elements of the prosecution case, it would provide the US with an excuse to repeat the air raids of 1986, which killed scores of Libyans. As he followed his lawyers’ advice not to give evidence, his story was never tested at trial. Mr Giaka’s was, and, to put it kindly, was found to be wanting. To put it less kindly, he was exposed as a money grabbing fantasist. He was done for by a series of CIA cables in which his handlers described in rich detail how he took them for a ride and provided little useful in return. Most of the damning details were redacted in the cables originally disclosed to the defence. The CIA only agreed to relax its censorship under pressure from the court. (The saga provided the trial’s most scandalous episode, to which I shall return later.) Mr Giaka was the sole source of the claim that Mr Megrahi was a senior intelligence agent. He also claimed that Colonel Gaddafi was a freemason.

Mr Linklater should be well aware of all these weaknesses in Mr Megrahi’s conviction, yet he fails to report them. Setting them aside, many aspects of the Crown’s conspiracy theory verged on preposterous. Megrahi chose a small shop, rather than an anonymous chain store and bought clothes in a random manner, which seemed designed to bring attention to himself. Rather than compartmentalising the operation, as any sensible terrorist would, he then returned to the island a fortnight later executed the final leg of the plot by planting the bomb. Furthermore, he chose to launch the bomb from Malta’s Luqa airport, where Mr Fhimah was well known, and which had unusually strict baggage procedures that required the head loader physically counting the number of bags to see that they matched the number checked in (his load sheet confirmed that the number did match – a further substantial flaw in the Crown case, which Mr Linklater fails to acknowledge).  The night before the plot, rather than laying low, he and Mr Fhimah visited a Maltese friend of Mr Fhimah’s, who had never previously met him. Mr Fhimah introduced him under his real name. He then stayed the night at the Holiday Inn under his false name, having stayed there on 7 December under his real one. He kept the false passport for 12 years, well after its expiry date, and allowed his lawyers to hand it over to the Scottish prosecutors. He was supposedly an airport security expert yet he sent the bomb on a three-legged journey, which, he must have known, might be plagued by winter delays and luggage system foul-ups. Furthermore, he set the timer to detonate only just over an hours after PA103’s scheduled departure time and only 38 minutes after its actual take off.

Libya’s supposed motive was revenge for the US air raids of 1986. This element of the theory was contradicted by none other than Margaret Thatcher. In her autobiography, published two years after the Libyans were indicted, she wrote in justification of her support for the attacks: ‘[The air raids] turned out to be a more decisive blow against Libyan-sponsored terrorism than I could ever have imagined … the much-vaunted Libyan counter attack did not and could not take place. Gaddafi had not been destroyed but he had been humbled. There was a marked decline in Libyan-sponsored terrorism in succeeding years.’

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, no evidence has emerged publicly to suggest that the Libya was involved in the bombing. Three years ago, at the start of the revolution the opposition leader and former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he had proof that Gaddafi was behind the bombing. When asked about this proof by the BBC a few weeks later, the best he could offer was that the regime had paid for Megrahi’s legal case – fact that was both well-known and entirely irrelevant. He later claimed that Expressen had misquoted him. Inconveniently for the Crown, some senior anti-Gaddafi figures have denied that Libya was involved in the bombing and the country’s first interim justice minister, Mohamed al-Alagi, has stated publicly since the revolution that Megrahi was innocent. Moreover, in the two and a half years since the revolution began, the only document to surface from the ransacked offices of the old regime is a letter from Megrahi to his relative Abdullah Sennusi in which he proclaims his innocence.

In defending the official narrative, Mr Linklater offers the following king-sized non-sequitur: ‘Even the Libyan government appears to accept that the origins of the plot lie in their country – it has appointed prosecutors to liaise with Scottish investigators in their search for further proof.’  The appointment of prosecutors does not connote an acceptance of Libyan involvement.

Mr Linklater points out that my books barely touch upon another alleged case of Libyan aviation terrorism, the bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989. The reason is simple: I am not an expert on it and am therefore happy to accept that the official case – that Libya was entirely to blame – might well be true. (French journalist Pierre Péan, who is an expert, has, I am told, destroyed the official case.) The UTA bombers’ use of a Samsonite suitcase and a timer, according to Mr Linklater, makes the attack ‘strikingly similar’ to Lockerbie, yet the Sikhs who blew up Air India flight 182 in 1985 also used a Samsonite case and a timer. A more startling parallel, in my view, is the fact that the forensic cases both rested on tiny fragments of the alleged timers recovered from a vast crash site, which were analysed by the same discredited FBI expert, and traced to a shady European supplier. And, as with Lockerbie, the prosecution rested upon the erratic testimony of a single witness.

What, then, of the Iran/PFLP-GC conspiracy theory? Mr Linklater ascribes it to Megrahi’s supporters, yet the Justice for Megrahi campaign, to which most of the supporters are signatories, is deliberately neutral on the matter. For reasons I am about to explain, I am not, however, as I cautioned in my book Megrahi: You are my Jury, the case against these alternative suspects may turn out to be as flawed as the one against Megrahi – a statement that undermines Mr Linklater’s characterisation of me as wholly wedded to this counter theory.

Iran had a clear and credible motive for the bombing: to avenge the death of the 290 people who died when the US battleship the Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf.   Declassified US intelligence documents state as a matter of fact that Iran hired the PFLP-GC. In the Autumn of 1988 a PFLP-GC cell in West Germany began planning an attack on western airlines. Its bomb-maker, Marwan Khreesat, who was later revealed to be a mole for both the German foreign intelligence service and its pro-Western Jordanian counterpart, confessed that he had made five barometrically triggered bombs, two of which he had concealed within a mono Toshiba BomBeat radio cassette players. The Lockerbie Toshiba BomBeat was stereo. He was adamant that the cell was on the verge of an attack and that its leader, Hafez Dalkamoni, had shown an interest in Pan Am.

Dalkamoni, Khreesat and a number of their associated were arrested by two months before Lockerbie, with the police recovering a huge terrorist arsenal, including one of the Toshiba bombs. All bar Dalkamoni and one other were released within days, while others remained undetected, including, according to Khreesat, an airline security expert one known as Abu Elias. Less than three weeks before the bombing a US State Department security bulletin warned ‘Team of Palestinians not assoc[iated] with Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) intends to atk [attack] US tgts [targets] in Europe. Time frame is present.’ Remarkably, it continued: ‘[Targets] specified are Pan Am airlines and US mil[itary] bases.’  Although the PFLP-GC was not named, the group was opposed to the PLO and had an infrastructure in Europe.

According to retired CIA Middle East specialist Robert Baer, who was involved in the early stages of the Lockerbie investigation, the CIA established within days of the flight 655 that Dalkamoni met members of the Iranian intelligence service, the Pasadaran. Iranian instructions, said Baer, were ‘crystal clear: Blow up an American airplane – in the air in order to kill as many people as possible.’  He would not be drawn on his sources, but insisted they were ‘as good as it gets.’ Baer has never claimed to have first hand knowledge of the of the bomb plot, but merely reported what was stated as fact in the intelligence community at the time. He is not, as Mr Linklater claims, one of my principal informant, but merely added detail to what I, and many others, had already gleaned from elsewhere. Well before he went on the record in 2002, declassified US intelligence documents had surfaced, which stated as fact that Lockerbie was a PFLP-GC operation. Another, written by the Defence Intelligence Agency in September 1990, following a visit to Syria by US Secretary of State James Baker, states that Syria had promised to had over members of the PFLP-GC if the US would provide proof of its role in the bombing: ‘Damascus has demanded evidence of the PFLP-GC’ s involvement. This has been especially true with regard to PFLP-GC involvement in Pan Am 103. Although the US has provided evidence of PFLP-GC complicity the Syrian Government has dismissed it as insufficient.’ By the time the memo was written, the Lockerbie investigation had swung decisively towards Libya, yet the US government had evidence of PFLP-GC involvement, even if it didn’t meet the Syrians’, no doubt very high, standards of proof. Five months later, at the end of February 1991, by which time the investigation was solely focused on Libya, a DIA report stated that Iran’s interior minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, had paid $10 million for the bombing.

Iran had a powerful motive: revenge for the US Navy’s shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655, which killed 290 six months before Lockerbie.  Declassified US intelligence documents state as fact that Iran hired the PFLP-GC. Another, written months after the investigation had switched to Libya, stated that Iran’s interior minister had paid the bombers $10 million. In October 1988 a PFLP-GC cell in West Germany was caught by the police planning an attack on western airlines. Its bomb-maker, Marwan Khreesat, confessed that he had made five barometrically triggered bombs, two of which he had concealed within a mono Toshiba BomBeat radio cassette players. The Lockerbie Toshiba BomBeat was stereo.

Apologists for the official line have claimed that the intelligence documents merely recycled old and unreliable intelligence, yet a deep-cover CIA asset called Richard Fuisz was told by numerous high ranking Syrian officials as late as 1995 (for years after the two Libyans were indicted) that the PFLP-GC’s leader, Ahmed Jibril, was taking credit for the bombing. These sources, said Fuisz in a 2001 court hearing, the scope of which was severely limited by the CIA, interacted with Jibril on a constant basis. Mr Linklater wrote in an email to me: ‘I am amazed that you should be touting shadowy [my italics] CIA agents like Fuisz and Baer, whose evidence would never stand up in court.’ He stopped short of calling them liars, presumably because there is nothing to suggest that they are, but the pejorative verb and adjective were enough to signal that neither they, nor I, were to be trusted. How does Mr Linklater know that their evidence would not stand up? If the CIA had loosened its leash on Fuisz, he could have named names, and provide leads and evidence that would have been accepted in court.

On to that second conspiracy theory. According to Mr Linklater’s Times column of 13 August 2012, we allege a huge plot to shift the blame from Iran and the PFLP-GC to Libya, which involved: ‘the planting or suppression of forensic evidence, the control of witnesses by intelligence services, the approval of senior politicians, the complicity of police officers, a prosecution team prepared to bend every rule to secure a conviction, and a set of senior Scottish judges willing to go along with that [my italics].’

The last sentence is key. It suggests that we claim that everyone from the police to the judges plotted with government and intelligence services to protect the likely bombers and convict those whom they knew to be innocent. The trouble is neither I, nor the great majority of Mr Megrahi’s supporters, have ever made such a claim. In his Scottish Review article Mr Linklater quotes the following passage of my book Megrahi: You are my Jury, which, I believe, clearly does not posit a mega conspiracy: ‘The police cannot be blamed for following leads that fell into their laps. Together with the Crown, they stitched together a flimsy case based around a mercenary double agent, a highly unreliable identification, a hopeless CIA informant, some highly equivocal documents and overstated forensic conclusions, but, again, they were only doing their jobs.’

My latest book, Scotland’s Shame, sets out my view more explicitly:

‘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.’

To be clear, I believe that two different things happened: firstly, the US government ensured that blame was from Iran and the PFLP-GC to Libya; secondly, the Scottish criminal justice system screwed up massively. The first I consider likely, but unproven, the second I consider a cert. Both are based upon a rational evaluation of the available facts. I do not believe that the second occurred because the Americans told the Scots to exonerate the real culprits and frame innocents, indeed I find such suggestions fanciful. In an email to me, Mr Linklater wrote: ‘I’ve been in the [journalism] business for more than 40 years, and have learned over that time a simple principle of reporting: that good investigation requires sound proof.’ Yet he has failed to produce any evidence that the majority of Mr Megrahi’s supporters have posited a grand conspiracy. The Justice for Megrahi campaign committee have formally alleged that some of the failures might have involved criminal conduct by certain Crown servants. They do not, however, claim that it happened at the behest of governments and intelligence services.

There was a clear motive for the US government to shift the blame from Iran to Libya. The Reagan administration was mired in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. As a number of journalists have documented, most notably the scholarly Robert Parry, Reagan’s successor, George Bush Snr, who took office within a month of Lockerbie, spent his entire presidency trying to dodge the tide of scandal. Like Reagan, he was also preoccupied with the fate of US hostages held in Lebanon. If Iran was not appeased, it had the power to severely damage his presidency. Libya, by contrast, had no leverage over the US, moreover, toppling Gaddafi had been a White House obsession throughout the 1980s. As another great American journalist, Bob Woodward, revealed, CIA director William Casey launched one of the biggest covert programmes in the agency’s history, with the clear aim of toppling Gaddafi. Disinformation – that is lying and fakery – was at its core, furthermore it had a number of key personnel in common with the Iran-Contra operation.

Defenders of Megrahi’s conviction assert that the key breakthroughs in the investigation emerged through old-fashioned detective work. However, behind the scenes, the CIA played a key role. One of the Crown’s main witnesses, Majid Giaka, was a CIA asset, while another, Mebo boss Edwin Bollier provided information to the Swiss police at the behest of the CIA. According to his main client, that most diligent of Iron Curtain intelligence agencies, the Stasi, he was almost certainly a western intelligence mole. At Megrahi’s trial it emerged that the CIA had had one of the Mebo timers for two years prior to Lockerbie and we subsequently learned that the agency knew months before the bombing that the devices had been made by Mebo and supplied to Libya. It was the CIA who matched the circuit board fragment to the timers, while trying to conceal its own role in the ‘discovery’ by insisting that an FBI forensic expert take credit for it. There is a cloud of evidential anomalies hanging over the fragment’s provenance. In view of the fact that it was not, as we now know, from one of the 20 timers supplied by Bollier to Libya, is it really far-fetched to suggest that the CIA planted a fake fragment in order to conclusively link Libya to the bombing? According to the head of the FBI investigation, Richard Marquise, his Swiss counterpart believed the fragment was a plant, yet he was not derided as a crazy conspiracy theorist, indeed Marquise acknowledged that the same though also crossed his mind.

It was supposedly months of old-fashioned detective work that revealed that the bomb had come from Malta, via Frankfurt. Yet US diplomatic security officer Fred Burton let slip that the CIA told him within 10 days of the bombing that the bomb had come from Malta, which again raises the suspicion that the agency predetermined the investigation’s outcome.

I have spent many months doing my own old-fashioned detective work among the mountain rescue volunteers, police officers and military personnel who searched the crash site. Among them were rescue team members who recounted seeing American officials in Lockerbie within two hours of the crash, at around 9 pm. The team leader recalled that some of the officials had gathered in a room in the police station, where they were studying maps. A helicopter pilot told me how he ferried around the crash site two CIA agents who conducted their own searches unsupervised by the Scottish police. Officially no Americans reached town before 11pm and the authorities have always denied that there was American interference at the site. They have also denied that large quantities of drugs or cash were found, yet I have spoken to a local man who found drugs and have a precognition statement by one who was present when drugs were recovered. I have also spoken to people who found large bundles of dollars. There may well be innocent explanations for these events, in which case the authorities should tell us what they are, rather than denying that they happened. And, instead of writing me off as a conspiracy theorist, perhaps Mr Linklater should get out and do some door knocking of his own.

The core of his argument is that we have dismissed hard evidence in favour of speculation, yet our chief concern is not the suspicion that blame was shifted. Rather, it is that the evidence that convicted Mr Megrahi was anything but hard, and that the hard evidence that should have acquitted him was withheld. Our case is built on facts, not speculation – these facts in particular:

  1. The trial court judgment, delivered by three of Scotland’s most senior judges, was deemed unreasonable by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. In saying: ‘The Commission does not consider there to be any reasonable basis for the trial court’s conclusion that the purchase took place on 7 December 1988 and therefore for the inference it drew that the applicant was the purchaser of the items from [Gauci’s shop] Mary’s House’, the commission came as close as it legally could to saying that it considered the guilty verdict itself to be unreasonable..
  2. The SCCRC discovered that the Crown had withheld numerous items of evidence that, in its view, would have been important to Megrahi’s defence. No fewer than four of the SCCRC’s six appeal referral grounds concerned such undisclosed evidence.
  3. During the trial, two senior prosecutors viewed the previously redacted extracts of CIA cables concerning the key Crown witness and CIA informant Magid Giaka. They reported back to their boss, the Lord Advocate Colin Boyd QC, that there was nothing within them that might assist the defence, and he relayed the assurance to the court. However, when that material was later disclosed to the defence, it was found to contain numerous damaging details, including:
  • Repeated references not only to Giaka’s desire for sham surgery to in order to fake an injury that would enable him to avoid military service, but also his repeated and successful pleas to the CIA to pay for it.
  • The fact that his CIA handlers believed that he had acquired money through illegal commissions and perhaps through low-level smuggling.
  • References to other meetings with him, for which no cables had been disclosed.
  • The fact that the CIA had grown increasingly dissatisfied with him and had been on the verge of sacking him.

The revelations prompted Fhimah’s leading counsel, Richard Keen QC, to comment: ‘Some of the material which is now disclosed goes to the very heart of material aspects of this case, not just to issues of credibility and reliability, but beyond. I frankly find it inconceivable that it could have been thought otherwise.’ The SCCRC noted that Mr Boyd’s assurance to the court was ‘difficult to understand’, adding: ‘The matter is all the more serious given that part of the reason for [the prosecutors] viewing the cables on 1 June, 2000, was precisely in order to assess whether information behind the redacted sections reflected upon Majid’s credibility.’ (For more on this subject see my earlier article for the Scottish Review.)

4. The Crown Office allowed the police to obtain a $2 million reward for the most important prosecution witness, Tony Gauci, despite the payment of such rewards being against its own rules (a subject on which I have also written for the Scottish Review).

5. The Crown withheld the results of forensic tests, which had been supervised by the chief prosecution forensic scientist, that directly contradicted his crucial assertion that the timer fragment was ‘similar in all respects’ to the boards used in the timers supplied to Libya.

6. Despite being under a legal obligation to investigate all leads, not only those that point to Libya, the police and Crown Office have failed to interview witnesses who can attest to the fact that the fragment could not have originated from the Libyan timers.

7. When, in 2012, the committee of Justice for Megrahi submitted a summary of their allegations of criminal misconduct in confidence to the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill and invited him to appoint an independent investigator to consider them, MacAskill instead passed them to the Crown Office and told them to take the allegations to the police, even though Crown Office officials and police officers were named in the allegations. Despite having seen neither the detailed allegations, nor the supporting evidence, the Crown Office immediately declared publicly that they were ‘without exception, defamatory and entirely unfounded’ and that the committee had been ‘deliberately misleading’, ie were liars.

These are all facts, not opinions or theories. I believe that they add up to the greatest scandal in Scotland’s post-devolution era. Mr Linklater fails to acknowledge most of them and the rest he brushes over lightly. It isn’t as if there are no precedents for the criminal justice system behaving extremely badly. The 15-year debacle of the Shirley McKie case tells us all we need to know about its capacity for denial and distortion of the truth.

The Crown Office’s response to the Justice for Megrahi committee’s allegations is especially disturbing. The allegations remain unproven and their subjects are entitled to the presumption of innocence, but they were made in good faith by people of intelligence and integrity, among them a former police superintendent, the former parish priest of Lockerbie and the father of one of the Lockerbie victims. The recently retired former chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway police, Patrick Shearer, appeared to be taking the allegations seriously, but the Crown Office’s petulant and partisan response ruled out from the start any prospect of prosecutions.

In two previous articles on the case, published in The Times on 13 August 2012 and 4 October 2013, Mr Linklater failed even to acknowledge that the SCCRC had referred Megrahi’s conviction to the appeal court, let alone that it had done so on six grounds. Only after I had taken him to task in an as yet unanswered open letter did he acknowledge this fact. However, rather than engaging with the SCCRC report’s awkward contents, he has used it to mow down his straw men of conspiracy nuts. In a Times article on 21 December he claimed that the report ‘triumphantly vindicates’ the justice system. This is like suggesting that the emergency services who save lives at a train crash are a triumphant vindication of rail safety.

He asserts that the SCCRC disposes of most of our ‘cherished theories’ in particular claims that evidence had been manipulated by the police. These allegations emanated not from Mr Megrahi’s supporters, but from a former police officer known as the Golfer. Mr Linklater is not the first one to highlight the weaknesses in the Golfer’s evidence. Two years ago another journalist wrote that his accounts were ‘erratic, often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.’ That journalist was me. Strange, then, that Mr Linklater should have inferred that I cherish the Golfer’s claims.

He accuses us of rejecting parts of the report that don’t suit us, when we in fact accept most of them. But if, as we believe, the report is a curate’s egg, are we not entitled to say so? Parts of it are demonstrably poor, for example, the commission conducted a lengthy review of the evidence concerning the timer fragment, yet failed to uncover the crucially important fact – based upon the evidence of Crown witnesses – that it could not have originated from one of the Libyan timers. Its investigation of events at the crash site was very limited and it failed to interview any of the civilian and military witness who attest to the events and finds that I have described above. The enquiry team failed to follow up Robert Baer’s claims with anyone except the police and MI5, neither of whom, I would suggest, was motivated to give them any credibility. (The commission did not conclude, as Mr Linklater implies, that Baer was not to be trusted, rather it noted that it had no reason to doubt his credibility. Despite what Mr Linklater suggests, no one, least of all Baer, has ever claimed that he had direct knowledge of the information he relayed.)

It is not only Mr Linklater’s ‘conspiracy theorists’ who don’t accept all the SCCRC’s findings: neither did the lawyers who led Megrahi’s second appeal (which, sadly, he felt compelled to abandon in order to secure compassionate release). They also contended that there were serious failings in the conduct of his defence and that the defence team was mistaken in not leading certain evidence in relation to, inter alia, the PFLP-GC, Heathrow airport and Tony Gauci. I am not a lawyer and therefore make no judgement on the defence team, who have vigourously contested these claims. But to imply, as Mr Linklater does, that it is a matter of uncontested fact that they properly evaluated all the evidence is simply misleading.

Mr Linklater is apparently oblivious to the contradictions in his own arguments, with occasionally hilarious consequences. For example, having dismissed my summary of the police investigation as ‘little more than a caricature’, he delivers this cartoon-like portrait of his antagonists: ‘Once seized with the virus of suspicion, nothing in the way of fact or reason will deter those who are determined to prove their case.’ He berates me for using the phrase ‘we may never know’, when referring to the influence that the British and American governments may have had on the case, declaring: ‘I have always distrusted that phrase ‘we may never know’ – it is a means of dropping a hint without ever revealing whether there is any truth in it.’ How marvellous that he later writes: ‘The SCCRC raised questions about the identification, which, it determined, were grounds for appeal. Whether that would have overturned the verdict we may never know [my italics].’

The hint dropped by this particular ‘we may never’ is that the verdict would have stood. To drive home the point he claims that Megrahi might have been convicted, even if he had not been correctly identified as the clothes purchaser. If he has properly read the court’s judgment, he should know that the ‘identification’ – not an identification at all, of course – was central to the conviction. But maybe he hasn’t properly read it, because, as he acknowledges, he is not a Lockerbie specialist. This is especially apparent in his account of the Heathrow evidence, which has come under fresh scrutiny thanks to the publication of the book Adequately Explained by Stupidity? by another of his targets, Dr Morag Kerr. His Times article of 21 December highlighted an assertion by Mr Megrahi’s trial counsel, Bill Taylor QC, that the Heathrow evidence was ‘tested to destruction’. An unnamed member of the defence team added: ‘If the suggestion is that the bomb was placed on board at Heathrow, how on earth did it occur to anybody to take a trip to Malta in order to buy some children’s clothing, in order to take that clothing back to London to assemble a bomb?  It just doesn’t stack up.’ Again, this was odd, because during his final submissions to the court Mr Taylor argued, quite rightly, that Maltese clothing did not prove that the bomb had begun its journey in Malta. Clothes bought weeks earlier had plenty of time to leave the island prior to the bombing. Mr Linklater says that the implication that the bomber bought clothes in Malta and planted the bomb at Heathrow ‘requires a heavy suspension of disbelief.’ The idea that the same person bought the clothes and planted the bomb is, I agree, far fetched (although this is what the Crown posited at trial), but the not the suggestion that the bombers used the clothes to lay a false trail to Malta. As Mr Taylor asked during his final submissions: ‘If the clothes buyer had intended to place the bomb bag onto a plane at Luqa, having regard to the high level of risk of detection, wouldn’t one have expected him to remove the clothing labels?’

Mr Linklater claims that the SCCRC found the evidence of a Heathrow bomb ‘so thin’ that it did not bother to examine it. What the SCCRC actually said was that it did not examine the Heathrow evidence because it received no submissions on the matter, and because it received substantial attention at trial. The evidence we found when preparing Megrahi’s second appeal was, in the view of senior counsel, significant and should have been before the trial court. It is clear, both from Dr Kerr’s analysis and the second appeal team’s, that the trial court was not given a clear view of the Heathrow evidence.

The undisputed Crown case was that the bomb exploded in a luggage container numbered AVE4041. Most of the bags in there had been unloaded from the Frankfurt feeder flight, PA103A, including, according to the Crown, the brown Samsonite suitcase from Malta. However, there was some other luggage in there, which had been loaded before PA103A arrived. These were supposedly Heathrow interline bags, meaning they had arrived at Heathrow on other flights. All of the loaders who were involved in packing AVE4041 confirmed something very significant: before the Frankfurt bags were loaded the entire floor of the container was covered with luggage. One of the loaders, John Bedford, recalled seeing something still more significant: a brown hardshell suitcase ‘the type Samsonite make’, positioned very close to where the explosion later occurred. He saw it when AVE4041 was in the interline baggage shed, well before the Frankfurt flight arrived. Bedford was clear that he hadn’t put it there and so too was the only other person on duty in the shed, Sulkash Kamboj.

The police produced a detailed schedule of all the baggage that could have found its way into AVE4041. It demonstrated that a maximum of six Heathrow interline bags could have been in the container before PA103A arrived, all of which were within the normal size range. However – and here’s the rub – covering the base of the container could have required seven or eight standard sized cases, just as in this photo:

PZ345-P03-

The schedule showed something else very important: none of the six legitimate bags were brown, hard-shelled suitcases.

The loader who added the Frankfurt bags, Amarjit Sidhu, was sure that he did not move any of the bags that were already in AVE4041 when he added the Frankfurt bags, indeed, most of the loaders said that it was not their custom to rearrange bags. So, the Bedford suitcase must have been very close to the explosion, indeed, according to the Crown case, it should have been immediately below the brown Samsonite one from Malta. If the Malta suitcase existed, then the police should have recovered fragments of two brown hard-shelled cases, but they only found fragments of one. So, what happened to the Bedford case? The likely answer is that it contained the bomb and that the Malta case never existed.  Security around the interline shed was non-existent and, as Bedford acknowledged in evidence, anyone with airside access could have placed a suitcase into the container.

The Crown claimed that the bomb suitcase was in the second layer of luggage, slightly overhanging the angled section of AVE4041. The scientific support for it is, to say the least, equivocal. And, if you look back at that photo, it’s clear that a suitcase could be in the bottom layer yet still overhang the angled section.

The Crown disclosed the police schedule to the defence early on during the trial preparations and notified them that they would be running an exclusion case, ie they would show that all the bags in AVE4041 were legitimate apart from the one allegedly from Malta. But the schedule was not among the Crown productions that were later lodged with the court and, in the event, the Crown did not run an exclusion case, perhaps because they could not exclude the Bedford suitcase.

The Crown told the defence that the schedule contained inaccuracies, which may account for why the defence did not use it at trial. However, there is no evidence that the schedule’s key findings – that there were only six legitimate items in AVE4041 when the Frankfurt flight arrived, none of which was a brown hard-sided case – were mistaken. If there was such evidence, the Crown would likely have used it to undermine the Bedford bag theory.

The defence have argued that they tested the Heathrow evidence to destruction, but Dr Kerr disagrees. Whoever is right, it remains the case that much of the key the evidence was not tested to destruction before the court. The Crown relied on the Maltese clothes and documents from Frankfurt airport to support their claim that the bomb had come from Malta, while the defence submitted that the Bedford case matched the bomb suitcase; that it was at, or could easily have been moved to, the location at which the explosion occurred; and that remains of only one brown hard-shelled case had been recovered. The crucial baggage schedule was not put before the court, likewise the voluminous witness and documentary evidence upon which it was based. Detailed evidence forensic and witness evidence about the likely positioning of most of the blast damaged cases (a potentially crucial issue in determining the location and identity of the primary suitcase) also went unheard and so too did the evidence of Sidhu, who added the Frankfurt luggage, who was sure that he never rearranged any of the bags.

The judges sidestepped the issue of the Bedford suitcase. They acknowledged that Bedford was ‘a clear and impressive witness’ and that the evidence supported the defence submission ‘that a suitcase which could fit the forensic description of the primary suitcase was in the container when it left the interline shed.’ They got around this by relying on evidence from another loader, Terence Crabtree, who was not involved in loading the Frankfurt bags into AVE4041, that luggage was sometimes rearranged. They acknowledged that, if this had happened – and according to the actual loader of AVE4041, Sidhu, it didn’t – then the Bedford case could have ended up in the second layer, in exactly the position that the Crown claimed the primary suitcase was in. But, they then added: ‘if there was such a rearrangement, the suitcase described by Mr Bedford might have been placed at some more remote corner of the container, and while the forensic evidence dealt with all the items recovered which showed direct explosive damage, twenty-five in total, there were many other items of baggage found which were not dealt with in detail in the evidence in the case.’ So, it seemed that the judges believed that it for was the defence to run an exclusion case in order to prove the Bedford suitcase bomb scenario, not for the Crown to run one in order to prove the Maltese scenario, which was a novel reversal of the burden of proof, and one that fell a long way short of testing the Heathrow evidence to destruction. Dr Kerr has written much more on the subject in her book. It is an impressive work, rigorously detailed and logical. Her aim has been to uncover the truth, not to win a tactical court battle.

Mr Linklater’s biggest howler is his assertion that Dr Kerr and I claim that the bombing was linked to a break-in that occurred at Heathrow 15 hours earlier. We do no such thing, indeed we both accept that the break-in may well be wholly irrelevant. Mr Linklater points out, as I have previously, that the matter was considered and rejected at Mr Megrahi’s first appeal, but this does not excuse the Crown’s failure to disclose it. Had the security guard who discovered it not come forward after Mr Megrahi’s conviction, it would probably have remained covered up.

For all that he insults me as an irrational conspiracy theorist, we should be grateful to Mr Linklater for his contributions. The Megrahi case deserves public debate and, until he emerged as the voice of the ‘It-couldn’t-happen-here’ tendency, that debate was very one-sided. When boiled down, his defence of the conviction is that the Crown case ‘has been tested and re-tested under the strict conditions imposed by a court of law’, whereas the counter evidence has not. Yet he knows that court scrutiny is no guarantee of a conviction’s safety. The most notorious miscarriage of justice cases, like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, were only resolved when the courts accepted the evidence and arguments of the victims’ supporters. Which begs a big question: when those convictions still stood, but their weakness were widely known, would Mr Linklater have defended them with equivalent vigour? As he might say, we may never know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My response to Magnus Linklater’s Scottish Review Article

The Scottish review has just published my response to Magnus Linklater’s earlier article. I shall be posting an expanded version on this blog shortly.

Please note that there is an editing mistake in the sentence:

For reasons I am about to explain, the case against these alternative suspects may turn out to be as flawed as the one against Megrahi

which should read:

For reasons I am about to explain, I am not, however, as I cautioned in my book Megrahi: You are my Jury, the case against these alternative suspects may turn out to be as flawed as the one against Megrahi

 

 

 

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The Crumbling Lockerbie Case

The following article by me has just been published under the above headline on the Consortium News website.

 

A quarter century ago, the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270 people and later was pinned on a Libyan agent. In 2011, Lockerbie was used to justify a U.S.-backed war to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, but the evidence now suggests the case was a miscarriage of justice, John Ashton writes.

By John Ashton

Dec. 21, 2013, marked the 25th anniversary of what, until 9/11, was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. civilians. A total of 270 people died when PanAm flight 103 was blown out of the sky over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie; 189 of the dead were Americans.

Officially the crime was partially solved on Jan. 31, 2001, when Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of the murders by a panel of three senior Scottish judges, sitting at a specially convened Scottish court at Kamp Zeist in The Netherlands. His co-defendant, Lamin Fhimah, was acquitted.

As Megrahi was allegedly a puppet of the Gaddafi regime the Scottish and U.S. prosecutors have vowed to pursue those who were pulling his strings. The ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller said on the 25th anniversary that he expected further charges to be brought. Yet, to most of those who have scrutinized the Megrahi conviction – and Consortiumnews.com is one of the few U.S. media outlets to have done so (see here, here and here) – it is, at best, odd and, at worst, a sham.

One of the UN trial observers, Professor Hans Koechler, noted: “there is not one single piece of material evidence linking the two accused to the crime. In such a context, the guilty verdict in regard to the first accused appears to be arbitrary, even irrational,” while eminent Scottish lawyer Ian Hamilton QC has said, “I don’t think there’s a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted.”

More importantly, in 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, a statutory body that reviews alleged miscarriages of justice, referred the conviction back to the appeals court on no fewer than six grounds, one of which was that the trial court’s judgment was unreasonable. Shockingly, four of the other grounds concerned the non-disclosure of important evidence by the prosecution. Sadly, Megrahi succumbed to pressure to abandon the appeal, shortly before his release from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2009.

More Promising Leads

Another reason to doubt the official line that the bombing was a solely Libyan operation is that there is ample circumstantial evidence that it was commissioned by Iran (possibly in retaliation for the U.S. military shoot-down of an Iranian airliner on July 3, 1988, killing 290 people) and carried out by a radical Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).

Two months before the Pan Am 103 attack, on Oct. 26, 1988, the group was caught red-handed by the German federal police with a barometric bomb designed to explode at altitude. The police also uncovered a huge terrorist arsenal, which the group had amassed in an apartment in Frankfurt, the city from which PA103’s feeder flight, PA103A, would originate. Like the Lockerbie bomb, the barometric bomb had been built into a Toshiba radio cassette player. Although it was a single-speaker model – the Lockerbie device had twin speakers – by a rather sick twist, both models were from Toshiba’s BomBeat range.

The man who made the German bomb, Marwan Khreesat, turned out to be a mole for both the Jordanian and German intelligence services. He told the police that he had made five bombs, only four of which were recovered. He and another PFLP-GC member, Mobdi Goben, who led the group’s Yugoslavian cell, confirmed that the organization had other bomb makers and that the Oct. 26 raids did not snare all of its German operatives.

Significantly, both men independently named a member with the nomme de guerre Abu Elias as the operation’s linchpin. His true identity remains unknown. Declassified U.S. intelligence documents stated as fact that Iran and the PFLP-GC were behind the bombing. Another, written months after the investigation had shifted decisively to Libya, said that Iranian interior minister had paid $10 million for the hit.

The increasingly rickety “Libya-did-it” line appeared to receive a much-needed boost 2 ½ years ago with the fall of the Gaddafi regime. At the start of the revolution, in early 2011, the opposition leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who had been Gaddafi’s justice minister, told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he had proof that his old boss was responsible for Lockerbie. Other senior government defectors implicated the old regime in the bombing.

So, when Scotland’s prosecution service, the Crown Office, announced that it would be seeking the cooperation of the new Libyan government to gather evidence against Megrahi’s alleged co-conspirators, Lockerbie watchers were braced for some rapid developments.

Getting Nowhere

Unfortunately for the Crown Office and police, in the intervening 2 ½ years, they appear to have got precisely nowhere. Last December, Libya’s new UK ambassador, Mahmud Nacua, said that his government would be happy to open all of its Lockerbie files to the police, but added that this would only happen when the government had fully established security and stability – a process he believed would take at least a year. A year on, there’s no hint that the files are about to be opened.

It was not until February 2013 that the police, prosecutors and the FBI got to visit Tripoli to speak to the new government. Embarrassingly, no sooner had they left than the new deputy justice minister, Hameda al-Magery, told the Daily Telegraph that the case was closed.

The Crown Office swiftly issued a press release, which described the discussions with the Libyans as “positive” and added “it is hoped there will be further progress as a result.” That hope seems increasingly forlorn. Only last month did the Libyan government appoint prosecutors to work on the case with Scottish and U.S. investigators.

The development was hailed as a “significant step” by Scotland’s chief prosecutor, the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland. That is one interpretation, but, when viewed as a whole, the events since Gaddafi’s fall suggest that the Libyans might be trying to put off the day when they have to admit to the Scots and FBI that the cupboard is bare: they have no evidence of the Gaddafi regime’s involvement.

Since Gaddafi’s fall, the only document about the case to surface publicly from his regime’s files is a letter from Megrahi to his relative, Gaddafi’s security chief Abdullah Sennousi, in which, according to the Wall Street Journal, he protested his innocence and blamed his plight on “the immoral British and American investigators” who “knew there was foul play and irregularities in the investigation.”

What, then, of Mustafa Abdel Jalil’s proof? When asked about it on BBC Newsnight, the best he could offer was the fact that Gaddafi’s government had paid Megrahi’s legal bills. A year later Jalil insisted in another newspaper interview that Expressen had misquoted him, adding: “All I said then is what I say right now, which is that the regime was involved in this case, evident by insisting [Megrahi] returns [to Libya] and that they spent a lot of money on him while he was in jail.”

It was preposterous to claim that the old regime’s funding of Megrahi’s legal defense, and its efforts to secure his return to Libya, was evidence of its guilt.

Exonerating Evidence

While the police investigation in Libya has stalled, the police and Crown Office are studiously ignoring new evidence that destroys the case against Megrahi and Libya. It concerns the most important physical evidence of the entire case, a tiny fragment of circuit board, known by its police reference number of PT/35b, which was allegedly part of the bomb’s timer.

According to the prosecution case, the fragment matched boards in timers designed and built for the Libyan intelligence service by a Swiss firm called Mebo. During preparations for Megrahi’s aborted second appeal, his legal team (with whom I worked as a researcher) discovered that the fragment could not have originated from one of the Libyan timers’ boards, because it bore a crucial metallurgical difference.

When combined with a wealth of existing anomalies concerning the fragment’s provenance, the discovery strongly suggested that it was a fake that was planted in order to implicate Libya. According to the published memoir of the head of the FBI’s Lockerbie investigation, Richard Marquise, his opposite number in the Swiss police also suspected the fragment was a plant.  The thought even occurred to Marquise and the Scottish police’s senior investigating officer, Stuart Henderson.

Why, then, have the Scottish police and Crown Office failed to approach the witnesses who can attest to the mismatch between the fragment and the Libyan timers – witnesses who include the man who made the boards used in the those timers, and two independent scientists? The obvious answer is that they want to avoid evidence that shows the official case to be built on sand.

 

 

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Private Eye rumbles Haselnut and The Ecologist

The latest issue of Private Eye carries the following article about everyone’s favourite Lockerbie crank Patrick ‘clinically sane’ Haseldine.

Most hacks and news organisations have long blocked or junked rants from the Lockerbie-bombing conspiracy theorist Patrick Haseldine. Not so the Ecologist magazine.

Oliver Tickell, the new editor, has just published “the shocking truth” of Lockerbie by the man who styles himself “emeritus professor of Lockerbie studies”. Haselnut has long claimed that Pan Am 103 was blown up by the apartheid South African government in order to kill an unfortunate Swedish passenger, Bernt Carlsson, the UN assistant secretary-general and commissioner for Namibia.

As well as aiming various far-fetched accusations over the years at people connected to the Lockerbie investigations and trials, Haseldine has also claimed that he was “nominated” for last year’s Private Eye Paul Foot Award – by which he meant he had in fact submitted his own material for consideration.

 

 

 

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New Private Eye article

The following article has been published in the latest issue of Private Eye (no. 1357). It was prompted by Magnus Linklater’s front page article in the Scottish edition of The Times, which was published on 21 December under the headlines ‘QC breaks silence over Lockerbie bombing. Lawyer dismisses Iran conspiracy theories.’  My comments follow.

THE Scottish criminal justice system, facing a series of new claims after the25th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing that it had locked up the wrong man, has a surprising champion. Bill Taylor, the QC who originally represented Abdelbasset al-Megrahi at his trial, has, according to the Times in Scotland, “condemned” critics and campaigners, including Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack. Taylor and other unnamed defence lawyers are reported to have said that claims that Iran, rather than Libya, was involved in the atrocity “and other theories” were examined in detail and dismissed at the time of trial because they did not stand up to scrutiny or standards required in a court of law.

But are they speaking out now because they themselves have come under attack by the late Megrahi’s subsequent legal team, led by Maggie Scott QC, who devoted no fewer than 60 of the 340 pages of appeal to what she alleges was Megrahi’s “defective” defence? Their comments coincide with publication of a new book that claims the bomb on the ill-fated Pan-Am Flight 103 was loaded on to the plane at Heathrow, contrary to prosecution claims that it started its journey in Malta (see last Eye). Channel 4

News has also revealed new documents showing that both high-level Syrian officials and the CIA had independently stated that the Syrian-based Palestinian group, the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command), not Libya, was responsible for the atrocity. (According to declassified US intelligence documents, the group was hired by Iran.) And other newspaper and TV reports have again focused attention on the original suspects, members of the PFLP-GC group who were based in West Germany at the time.

The lawyers dismiss the claims that the bomb was smuggled through Heathrow, saying the theory “was tested to destruction” at trial and that those who back the theory offered no explanation for how clothes purchased in Malta were found inthe suitcase bomb. But the new book, Adequately Explained by Stupidity? Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies, by Dr Morag Kerr, gives a very plausible explanation: there was another connected PFLP-GC cell operating in Malta at the time the clothes were bought to stuff the bomb case.

Taylor himself gave another explanation at the trial. Referring to the dodgy identification evidence of Megrahi by the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci and disputes about when the clothes were bought, Taylor suggested that the perpetratormay have deliberately been setting a false trail. “Having regard to the high level of risk of detection, wouldn’t one have expected him to remove the clothing labels?” he asked.

As to all other theories and in particular the involvement of the PLFP-GC being exhaustively examined, the grounds of appeal prepared by Ms Scott say the defence teams missed vital tricks. Taylor says the decision by the new Libyan administration announced ahead of the anniversary to appoint prosecutors to liaise with Scotland’sLord Advocate “in the discovery of any fresh evidence” undermined the argument that Libya was not involved. But that ignores the fact that two and a half years after the investigation was re-opened in Libya, no new evidence has emerged.

Taylor’s assertions that huge sums paid into Megrahi’s bank account by the Libyan government indicated he was not the low-level official he claimed to be may be on firmer ground. The Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission (SCCRC) examined his finances in detail and said it could “see the potential for further criminative inferences had the applicant been subjected to cross-examination”.

Megrahi’s new team says it has masses of documents to show the money was disposed of legitimately. But, as the Eye has long argued, and the SCCRC has concluded, that and other evidence relied on at trial was a far cry from proving that Megrahi was guilty.

As a non-lawyer, I do not feel qualified to comment upon the defective representation allegations made in Abdelbaset’s grounds of appeal. The SCCRC rejected such allegations in his SCCRC application, and Mr Taylor and the other members of the defence team vigourously countered the claims.

The documents referred to in the final paragraph were, in fact, available at the trial, but, as Abdelbaset followed the advice of his lawyers not to give evidence, were not used. Had he given evidence, the defence would have used the documents to demonstrate that he was involved in legitimate business activities. He would also have explained all the major payments in and out of his bank account.

 

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Embedded video of Channel 4 news item

Here is the Channel 4 News report, broadcast on 20 December, which I co-produced with reporter Julian Rush.

 

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A letter to The Times and a response from Magnus Linklater

Below is an unpublished letter, which I wrote to The Times in response to Magnus Linklater’s article of 21 December (to which I responded at greater length in an open letter). It provoked a response from Mr Linklater, which I have included below. I shall be responding to it in due course. As yet, he has not responded to either of my open letters, the first of which can be read here.

Dear Sir,

Not for the first time, Magnus Linklater (Times Scottish edition 21 December) seriously misrepresents the position of the majority of those who believe that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi – the so-called Lockerbie bomber – was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Once again he resurrects the claim that we are conspiracy theorists and ignores the fact that our chief concerns – that the trial court judgment was unreasonable and that numerous items of exculpatory evidence were withheld from the defence lawyers – were shared by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which referred the case back to the appeal court on no fewer than six grounds. Mr Linklater praises the SCCRC’s lengthy report, yet ignores the fact its conclusions were a damning indictment of the Scottish criminal justice system.

He also attaches the conspiracy theorist label to those who suggest that Iran, rather than Libya, was to behind the bombing, while turning a blind eye to the fact that the role of Iran and its terrorist proxies, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, is confirmed by numerous declassified US intelligence documents and is spoken to by two former CIA agents Mr Robert Baer and Dr Richard Fuisz.
Most outrageously, he suggests that Mr Megrahi’s supporters have accused his original defence team of knowingly overlooking or suppressing evidence that might have helped his defence. As Mr Linklater, should know, that is not the view of the Justice for Megrahi group, nor is it mine.

Journalists who conflate fringe views with those of the mainstream and ignore facts that sit uncomfortably with their own opinions should be sent back to journalism college, not let loose on the pages of a respected newspaper.

Yours sincerely,

John Ashton

 

Dear John Ashton

I don’t know if The Times will publish your letter — that is up to them.
But if you find the phrase “conspiracy theorists” insulting, then I find your suggestion that I should go back to “journalism college” offensive. I’ve been in the husiness for more than 40 years, and have learned over that time a simple principle of reporting: that good investigation requires sound proof.

I use the word conspiracy  advisedly. It describes the whole gamut of the pro-Megrahi school, which runs from CIA plots to drug-smuggling, tampered evidence, conniving lawyers, and complacent judges. Your own (first) book sets so many hares running it is quite impossible to track them down. And others have done the same. Only last week the Daily Mail had Dr Swire confronting Abu Talb, whom even you know was not responsible, as the principal suspect; and on  Saturday your fellow-theorist Morag Kerr alleged in a  radio discussion with me that the Crown had deliberately subverted evidence to support their case. If that is not a conspiracy I don’t know what is.

I am amazed that you should be touting shadowy CIA agents like Fuisz and Baer, whose evidence would never stand up in court. The way that Baer was exposed in the SCCRC report should make you think twice about using his name again.

Yes, it is true that the SCCRC found grounds for referring the case back to appeal. They mainly centred on Gauci’s evidence. That is certainly worth examining again, and might or might not undermine the prosecution case. But it is grounds for appeal, no more, and it  demonstrates  what an objective and  well-balanced inquiry the SCCRC  was. Far from being “a damning indictment” of the Scottish justice system,” it shows the system working. Of course, Megrahi himself had the opportunity of using the appeal process  to his advantage. But he chose not to.

I much prefer the meticulous way in which the SCCRC disposed of the various conspiracy theories involving Iran and the PFLP-GC by going back to first principles and invetigating them properly, rather than the wild, headline-grabbing claims that you and your coleagues deploy [sic].

regards

Magnus Linklater

 

 

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