Detectives travelling to Tripoli are not only tasked with unearthing the truth about the Lockerbie atrocity but with removing a dark shadow from Scotland’s legal system
SUSAN Cohen enjoys the 20th of every month. She has a double-toast to make. On 20 October 2011, Libyan militia killed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On 20 May the following year, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi died of prostate cancer in his home in Tripoli.
“On the 20th of every month now, I toast the death of both of them. That is my special day.”
Twenty-four years ago, Cohen, then 51, was among the 189 American families plunged into mourning. Her 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, an aspiring actress, had been on board Pan Am Flight 103 on its journey from London to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport when it exploded over Lockerbie. Last week, from her home in New Jersey, and now in her seventies, she was following the latest developments in this unending story.
On an unannounced visit to Libya, David Cameron revealed that Scottish police were to launch new inquiries into the atrocity. For the first time since the death of Gaddafi 15 months ago, officers from Dumfries and Galloway police would be allowed into the country to look further into the case.
“I’m glad that they are going,” she says – in fact, she would also like the FBI to head over as well. “I don’t think a guy like Gaddafi kept neat little records but I do think it is important that they go and that they try to learn more.”
She adds: “I’ve never bought into the nonsense that Libya didn’t do it. I was at the trial. But the trial was very narrow, it was just about Megrahi. I’m sure there are other people who know more about this. And it may be that other countries were involved as well. Not instead of Libya, but there is a question over Syria and Iran.
“This was not just one guy. Obviously it all falls to Gaddafi, but they could still find out who else was involved. Who built the bomb? Are some of these people still alive? Are they now in Syria?”
For Susan Cohen, and many other relatives of those that died that night, those are just the start of the questions. And while the task on the surface facing the police officers who head to Libya will be to examine the extent of the Gaddafi regime’s role in the atrocity, there is a bigger factor at play too. Lockerbie continues to be the focus of a cottage industry of speculation about what really happened that night. And with campaigners still disputing Megrahi’s guilt and Libya’s involvement, so the doubts continue to linger over Scotland’s legal system and whether, in the biggest case of all, it got it wrong – and then covered it up.
The Americans themselves are in no doubt: Cohen notes wryly that it is as if the grassy knoll in Dallas has been moved to Scotland, such is the proliferation of conspiracy theories now doing the rounds. But, with Megrahi having dropped his appeal in the week before his release from prison in 2008, those theories are only growing in number. It means that the police visiting Tripoli have the job not just of finding evidence, but of removing a shadow from the country’s legal system. Will there be anything to find?
Scepticism abounded last week after Cameron made his announcement on a rushed visit to Tripoli to visit his Libyan counterpart, Ali Zeidan. Far from it being a new serious line of inquiry, some claimed it was little more than a “public relations exercise”. Brian McConnachie, vice-chair of the Criminal Bar Association, declared: “It is difficult to imagine that sending police officers to Libya at this stage you are going to be able to find out much else. You are talking about, for example, a different Libya from a Libya that existed at that time, and who knows where all the people are who were making decisions at that time.”
Reverend John Mosey, who lost his 19- year-old daughter Helga, added: “I would be very sceptical about what could be found in those blasted and burned-out offices. The former regime has probably shredded anything it had.” Twenty-four years on, and nearly two years since the Gaddafi regime began to collapse, any hope that the secrets of Lockerbie are waiting to be discovered in an as yet undiscovered file in one of the old regime’s bottom drawers is fanciful. But what tales can former officials of the regime tell?
The Dumfries and Galloway police team remained tight-lipped last week about their lines of inquiry. “We welcome the support of the Libyan authorities for the ongoing investigation,” a spokesman declared. But when they do go – it is expected to be in March – it is likely that they will start by focusing on members of the old Libyan intelligence service. And, in particular, the man who many believe knows the full extent of the regime’s history of state terrorism – Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Senussi.
The head of the intelligence service under Gaddafi, he became a hated figure in his home country because of the vicious treatment handed out to opponents of the regime. Nicknamed the “butcher” and known as Gaddafi’s “black box” because of the secrets he supposedly holds, he was extradited back to Libya late last year, having fled to Mauritania following the regime’s collapse. He is now in jail, awaiting trial for numerous human rights abuses, including the massacre of 1,200 prisoners at the Abu Salim jail in 1996, which he is said to have personally supervised. It is also claimed that Senussi knew the identity of the killer of Pc Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.
Sir Richard Dalton, who was sent to be Britain’s ambassador to Libya in 1999, when diplomatic relations were resumed after a 17-year break, and who now chairs a Libya group at the Chatham House think tank, believes Senussi will be at the top of the list for Scottish detectives. “I think it likely that the Libyan authorities will assist Dumfries and Galloway police to interview some prisoners from those days – including Senussi.”
Others, also in jail, who may know more include Gaddafi’s prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi and external intelligence chief Abuzeid Dorda. There is also Saif al-Gaddafi, the man who travelled to Scotland to welcome Megrahi in 2008, still imprisoned in the western city of Sintan where he has been held since his capture at the end of 2011. The question is whether hardened men like Senussi will choose to co-operate – even assuming Scottish police get to interview them. “I have no idea whether they will find that he and others consider it in their interests to divulge what they may know,” says Dalton.
What would be in it for them is, at this point, unclear. Libya has so far resisted a request from the International Criminal Court to extradite both Gaddafi and Senussi. The Hague court wants to try them there for crimes committed against civilians. But it may be that both men will end up being tried at home, where they would most likely then face the death penalty. Any evidence about Lockerbie would then disappear with them to the grave.
Any information the police do get may not result in a fresh trial anyway, suggests Dalton. “The chances of material arising that would allow charges to be laid in Scotland is another matter – maybe they would be low. If the informant is a big fish like Senussi, who is accused of very serious crimes already, it would be difficult to get agreement that they should face a Scottish charge of involvement in the Lockerbie conspiracy, at least until a further delay, during which courts disposed of Libyan charges against him.” Although, he adds, that does not mean they should not try anyway. “There are questions about Libya’s culpability in the eyes of many Scottish lawyers. It is possible that a fuller account will emerge, though I do not expect it will ever be complete.”
There have been suggestions, however, that prosecutors could decide to try and put Lamen Khalifa Fhima back in the dock, if the evidence can be found. It is understood that more evidence is stacking up against the man who walked free from the trial in Camp Zeist. With the ending of the centuries-old double jeopardy law, which cleared the way for an accused person to stand trial more than once, that may be possible.
Key to that may be the other obvious person to talk to. Laying low in Qatar, is the mysterious Moussa Koussa, who served in the Libyan government as minister of foreign affairs and temporarily sought refuge in Britain. Regional experts believe he has, for now, decided to “clam up”. But many identify him as the key man with the knowledge of what exactly happened, and may be more amenable to talking. It may be that Dumfries and Galloway police want to take a plane on from Tripoli to the Middle East. Or they will be heading back to Malta, the Mediterranean island where, prosecutors said, the bomb was placed on to the Pan Am plane by Megrahi. There have already been reports that the Crown Office requested a special closed court hearing to be held there last autumn to gather more evidence under oath. Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci was the only person to identify Megrahi as the man who, he said, bought items of clothing which were later found wrapped around the bomb.
Certainly the pressure will be on to come up with some concrete proof that it was the Libyans who directed the plan – for if the police end up drawing a blank, it will only add weight to the claims that Megrahi was a stooge and that Libya had little or nothing to do with the affair. And sure to resurface are further claims that it was Iran that carried out the bombing in revenge for the downing of an Iranian passenger plane by American missiles six months earlier, and then persuaded Gaddafi to take the blame for it.
American relatives like Cohen scoff at the suggestion. There are plenty of others, however, who believe it. Scotland’s legal establishment will join the relatives over the coming weeks in hoping that the inquiries made in Libya result, finally, in some answers over the events of 1988. But, if the conspiracists are to be believed, they should be careful what they wish for.