The memorial to the victims of the ‘Lockerbie bombing’, in which 270 people died.
As Abdelbaset al-Megrahi hobbled off the plane in Tripoli on August 21, 2009, he was greeted by hundreds of jubilant Libyans, some waving Scottish flags. Megrahi - the ‘Lockerbie bomber’ – served just eight years of a life sentence for mass murder, when he developed terminal prostate cancer and was released.
The Scottish government’s decision to free him, saying Megrahi had less than three months to live, elicited a furious response from UK and US leaders.
David Cameron, then leader of the opposition said: ‘It is wrong. This man was convicted of murdering 270 people. He showed no compassion to them. They weren’t allowed to go home and die with their relatives.’
But two documentaries aired last night, aired on BBC Scotland Investigates and Al Jazeera English, raised the question: was Megrahi the victim of ‘Britain’s worst miscarriage of justice’?
It was just before Christmas, twenty one years earlier, that disaster struck a small town near the Scottish borders. At around 7pm, Pan Am Flight 103, travelling from London Heathrow to New York, exploded in the sky, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew members on board.
Debris falling in and around Lockerbie killed 11 residents, shattering the town, and instilling a desperate need for justice – for someone to take responsibility.
Three years later, investigators felt they had gathered enough evidence to tie two Libyans, Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, to the attack. The crash was caused by a bomb placed in a Samsonite suitcase in the plane’s cargo hold.
Also in the suitcase was a selection of clothes. Fragments of the material were traced to a clothing boutique in Sliema, Malta. The shopkeeper, Tony Gauchi, said he remembered the man who bought the clothes. In an identification parade, he picked out Megrahi.
In addition, a circuit board fragment, allegedly found embedded in a piece of charred material at the crash site, was identified as part of an MST-13 electronic timer. In 1986 the Libyan military purchased MST-13 timers from a Swiss company called MEBO.
Despite vociferously protesting his innocence, Megrahi was found guilty of mass murder in January 2001. His co-accused, Fhimah, was acquitted.
But in 2008, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Committee (SCCRC) mounted a fresh investigation into the case. They concluded that Megrahi could have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Last night’s documentaries explored the SCCRC’s findings. They looked in particular at the evidence given by Gauchi, the shopkeeper, revealing that two key elements of his evidence were unreliable.
Gauchi said it was raining on December 7, 1988, the day that Megrahi allegedly entered his shop. However, Major Joseph Mifsud, former chief meterologist, Malta, told Scotland Investigates that he was ‘90% certain’ that it did not rain that day.
Gauchi also said that Sliema’s Christmas lights were not on that day. However, Dr Michael Rafelo, former Maltese high commissioner to the UK revealed to the programme that he ‘switched them on on the 6th December.’
The date was important – Megrahi could only be proved to have been in Malta on December 7th.
‘As soon as you …place doubt on that being the date of purchase, you basically remove the whole underpinning of the crown case against Mr Megrahi,’ his solicitor, Tony Kelly, told the BBC.
The SCCRC report also revealed that Gauchi possessed a photograph of Megrahi, before he attended an identification parade.
What the documentaries didn’t reveal
Both the BBC and Al-Jazeera productions asked why the full, 821-page SCCRC report had not been published. While this is doubtless an important issue, it could have been dealt with far more quickly, leaving time to further scrutinize the report.
There is much in the SCCRC report that the programmes did not cover. For instance, regarding Gauchi, the SCCRC revealed that over the course of 20 interviews, Gauchi’s testimony became increasingly, and surprisingly, consistent with the account suggested to him in questioning. In particular, the items of clothing bought, the age of the purchaser, and the date of purchase.
Examining ‘undisclosed material’, the SCCRC also revealed that Tony Gauchi, and his brother Paul, were rewarded for their information. They found that:
(a) The witness Tony Gauci had, at an early stage, expressed an interest in receiving payment or compensation for his co-operation in giving evidence, and that this interest persisted until after the trial
(b) That the witness Paul Gauci had ” a clear desire to gain financial benefit” from his and his brother’s co-operation
(c) That the U.S. authorities offered to make substantial payments to the witness Tony Gauci from an early stage
(d) That an application for reward monies was made on behalf of the SIO of the investigation team of the Scottish police to the U.S. Department of Justice, after the trial, and that substantial payments were received by both Tony (in excess of $2m) and Paul Gauci (in excess of $1m) after the appeal.
Last night’s documentaries did raise questions about whether the fragment of the timer found was made of the same material as the MST-13 timers.
But even if it were a match, the SCCRC discovered that the Libyans were not exclusive of the MST-13 timers. The timers, said the SCCRC, had also been supplied to the Stasi in East Germany. This was not mentioned in the documentaries.
Nor was the fact that, in another key chapter of the report, the SSCRC scrutinized how an unaccompanied suitcase could have ended up on the Pan Am flight.
The prosecution said that Megrahi, who was head of airline security in Luqa airport, would have been able to load a bag containing the bomb onto a flight to Frankfurt from Luqa, where it would then be transferred to the Heathrow – New York flight. They based this on Megrahi’s presence at the airport on the morning of the bombing, and on documentation from Frankfurt airport that an unaccompanied bag was loaded onto the Frankfurt-Heathrow flight from the Luqa luggage.
However, the Air Malta general manager for ground operations, Borg, told the SSCRC that it was impossible or highly unlikely that an unaccompanied bag could be ingested at Luqa, because of their unique security system.
In addition, the documentation for KM 180 from Frankfurt to Heathrow did not record the carriage of any unaccompanied bags.
The SCCRC’s report was published in 2009 – it seems strange that the BBC and Al Jazeera sought to air their findings three years later. Nevertheless, the documentaries do provide a good starting point for examining a highly complex case.
It is a case that has been dogged by controversy – both over Megrahi’s conviction, and over his release. Many have suggested that there were political forces behind both, and even after Gaddafi’s death, the mystery of what really happened at Lockerbie lives on.
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