Today, the 26th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, the media is full of articles about the case. All report the claims of Scotland’s chief prosecutor, the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC, that a review of the case has confirmed the guilt of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man so far convicted of the bombing. However, Mr Mulholland and – with the exception of a couple of Scottish newspapers – the media have barely touched upon key facts that suggest Mr Megrahi was not guilty.
Before I list these, a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the story. The prosecution case, which was accepted by the Scottish judges who convicted Mr Megrahi, was that on the morning of 21 December 1988, while travelling under a false name, he managed to smuggle a brown Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb onto an Air Malta flight from Malta to Frankfurt. An expert in airline security and alleged senior intelligence officer, Megrahi was said to have labelled the case for onward transfer to Pan Am flight 103A from Frankfurt to London Heathrow and Pan Am 103 from Heathrow to New York.
He supposedly bought clothes for the suitcase at a small Maltese shop called Mary’s House on an earlier visit to the island on 7 December. The shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, who was the prosecution’s star witness, told the court that Mr Megrahi resembled the man who had bought the clothes. The Malta link was confirmed by baggage records from Frankfurt airport, which appeared to show that a suitcase from the Air Malta flight had been forwarded to Pan Am 103.
Another key plank of the case was a fragment of electronic circuit board, found embedded within part of a blast damaged, Maltese shirt. A British forensic investigator told the court that the fragment matched boards in timers supplied to Libya by Swiss company Mebo, which shared its offices with a Libyan company called ABH, in which Megrahi was a shareholder.
Surely open and shut case? Er, no. Here are just a few of the reasons why.
- The guilty verdict was “incomprehensible”
Not my description, but that of Professor Hans Köchler, a UN trial observer. He came to this conclusion because, according to the prosecution, Mr Megrahi coud only have carried out the bombing with the help of another Libyan, Lamin Fhimah, who stood trial with him. However, the judges acquitted Fhimah, which begged the question – as yet unanswered – how could Mr Megrahi acted alone?
- The clothes buyer was clearly not Megrahi
In his statements to the police, the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, consistently described the clothes buyer as around 50 years old, six feet tall, dark skinned and with a full head of hair. Mr Megrahi was around 5ft 8 inches tall, light-skinned, had thinning hair and, at the time of the incident, was just 36.
- It’s official – the court judgment was unreasonable
In 2007, following a four-year review of the case, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (the official body responsible for examining alleged miscarriages of justice) referred Mr Megrahi’s conviction to the appeal court on no fewer than six grounds. He abandoned the appeal in 2009 when terminally ill with cancer in the belief that it would help smooth the way for his release from prison on compassionate grounds.
Crucially, one of the SCCRC’s six grounds was that there was no “reasonable foundation” for the crucial finding that he bought the clothes on 7 December 1988, which was his only window of opportunity. Why did the commission reach this conclusion? Because Mr Gauci was clear that, as he was leaving the shop, the clothes purchaser bought an umbrella because it had started to rain. Yet meteorological evidence heard by the court demonstrated that there was no rain on 7 December. If Mr Megrahi didn’t buy the clothes on 7 December, the prosecution case collapses, so the SCCRC had come as close as it legally could to saying that the guilty verdict itself was unreasonable.
- The prosecution withheld a stack of evidence that was helpful to Megrahi
During their review, the SCCRC found that the prosecution had withheld important documents that cast doubt on their own case. Four out of the commission’s six appeal referral grounds concerned such non-disclosure.
Among the documents were secret police memos noting that Tony Gauci had expressed an interest in receiving a substantial reward, and that he was under the strong influence of his brother Paul, who regularly nagged the police about being rewarded. The SCCRC discovered that Tony was later secretly paid $2 million by the US Department of Justice and Paul $1 million. Among the documents uncovered by the commission was a begging letter from the police’s senior investigating officer to the DoJ, in which in which he acknowledged that the Crown Office was prevented by its own rules from seeking a reward for the brothers, but saw no problem in the police doing so.
- The circuit board fragment was not from one of the timers supplied to Libya
Evidence uncovered in 2009 demonstrated that the circuit board fragment could not have originated from one of the Libyan timer boards. The evidence concerned the metallic coating on the fragment’s copper circuitry. Back in 1990, two independent scientists consulted by the police established that the coating was pure tin, but when, two years later, they examined a board from the same batch that was used to make the timers supplied to Libya, they discovered that it was coated with a tin-lead alloy. As neither scientist was an electronics expert, they were unaware of the potential significance of the difference. However, in 2009 Mr Megrahi’s lawyers spoke to the prosecution witness who had made the boards used in the Libyan timers, who was certain that all of them were coated with tin-lead alloy and therefore equally certain that he could not have made the board from which the fragment originated. The lawyers also discovered notes by the prosecution forensic expert who had claimed in court that the fragment matched the boards in the Libyan timers. These demonstrated that he too was aware of the metallurgical disparity, which, as an electronics expert, he should have recognised the significance of.
- The luggage evidence points to Heathrow rather than Malta
It was not disputed at Mr Megrahi’s trial that the Lockerbie bomb was packed within a brown Samsonite suitcase. Of all the witnesses who were involved in the loading of the three flights on which, according to the prosecution, the bomb was carried were interviewed by the police. Only one of them could recall seeing such a case – a Heathrow baggage handler called John Bedford. Significantly, it was positioned within the luggage container within which the explosion later occurred, very close to the centre of the blast. Crucially, Mr Bedford went off duty BEFORE Pan Am flight 103A arrived from Frankfurt, which means that the suitcase he saw could not have originated on the Air Malta flight
Researcher Dr Morag Kerr, who has exhaustively studied the luggage evidence, has made an extremely compelling case that the Bedford suitcase contained the bomb. Furthermore, records from the Maltese airport suggest that no rogue baggage made it on to the flight to Frankfurt. (For further details see her book ‘Adequately Explained by Stupidity?’)
- There is no reliable evidence that Megrahi was a senior intelligence agent
The claim that Mr Megrahi was a senior intelligent agent originated from a junior colleague in the state-owned Libyan Arab Airlines. At Mr Megrahi’s trial, this witness, Magid Giaka, was revealed to be a CIA informant. Not only that, but the CIA considered him so unreliable that it was on the verge of sacking him before he became useful in the Lockerbie case. Declassified CIA cables examined by the court showed him to be a money-grabbing fantasist. As well as alleging that Mr Megrahi was an intelligence agent, he claimed that colonel Gaddafi was a freemason. The judges rejected most of his evidence, yet chose to believe his unsupported claim about Mr Megrahi.
Mr Megrahi does not deny that travelling on a false passport, which he says was issued to him because he was involved a US sanctions-busting efforts to source spare parts for the airline. Crucially, he kept the passport for eleven years after the bombing and was happy for it to be passed to the prosecution at trial – hardly the actions of a guilty man.
- No evidence has emerged from Libya since the fall of Gaddafi
A few days after the start of the Libyan revolution, in February 2011, Colonel Gaddafi’s ex-justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who was soon to become head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he had proof that Gaddafi had ordered the bombing. A few days later, he told the Sunday Times that Mr Megrahi had blackmailed Gaddafi into securing his release from prison by threatening to expose Gaddafi’s role in the bombing, and had ‘vowed to exact revenge’ unless Gaddafi complied. However, when, a few weeks later, he was pushed to reveal his proof, the best he could offer was that the Gaddafi regime had funded Megrahi’s legal case. He later claimed that Expressen had misquoted him. The Scottish police and prosecutors hoped that the regime change would yield more evidence about Mr Megrahi’s and Gaddafi’s role in the bombing, but, nearly four years on, no such evidence has surfaced publicly. The only significant document to emerge was a letter from Megrahi to his relative Abdullah Sennousi, which was reported by the Wall Street Journal. In it he stated: “I am an innocent man”. He wasn’t lying.