Book review: The Lockerbie Bombing, by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph

After his daughter was killed in the Lockerbie Bombing, Jim Swire set out to establish the truth of what happened. In this book, he tells the remarkable story of the three-decade quest that followed. Review by Allan Massie

The remains of Pan Am Flight 103, photographed on 22 December 1988, in Lockerbie. PIC: Roy Leykey / AFP / Getty Images

It is now more than 32 years since a bomb placed in the cargo hold of a Pan-Am flight exploded over Lockerbie 38 minutes out of Heathrow, and 270 people were killed. One of them was Dr Jim Swire’s 23-year-old daughter Flora. Ever since, he has devoted his life to trying to establish who was responsible for the crime. He has, by his account, written here with the collaboration of Paul Biddulph, been thwarted at every turn. Consequently, he has developed a deep distrust of the British and American governments and their secret services, and, sadly, a like distrust of the working of the Scottish justice system, both the courts and the police.

The investigation was a tortuous business, hampered, and indeed obstructed, by the tangled web and conflicting interests of the secret services. It was almost by chance that the criminal investigation became the responsibility of the Scottish Police and the Crown Office. If the bomb had exploded ten or 20 minutes later there would have been no dead in Lockerbie and no crime scene in Scotland.

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Obviously it was an act of terror. But who were the terrorists? From the start the assumption was that it was not the act of a lone terrorist group like the Red Brigade in Italy or the Badaar-Meinhoff gang in West Germany, but had been planned or at least authorised by a hostile state – a state hostile to the USA. The two favoured candidates were Iran and Libya, both of which had recent reason to plan the atrocity.

The Lockerbie Bombing, by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph

Meanwhile, the British Government refused requests to hold a Public Inquiry. Dr Swire was, and still is, naturally indignant. Yet, though there were other murky reasons for this refusal, the stated one was good. Can you properly hold such an enquiry, with witnesses on oath, without compromising an ongoing criminal investigation and any subsequent trial?

The investigation eventually focussed on Libya, and then on identified suspects. Where could a trial be held? Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University proposed staging it a third country, but with Scottish judges and according to Scots Law. It seemed improbable that Libya would find this acceptable. With great courage, Dr Swire went to Libya himself, with a photograph of his murdered daughter, to make a personal appeal to the dictator, Colonel Gaddafi. Politics, and a desire to have economic sanctions lifted, persuaded Gaddafi to give way. Two suspects were therefore delivered to the Netherlands and the trial was underway.

As we all know, one suspect, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, the other not. Members off the bereaved American families expressed satisfaction, but, even as Dr Swire sat through the trial, his confidence in both the evidence offered and the verdict withered. This book tells us why. It tells, too, how he supported al-Megrahi’s appeals and requests for a re-trial, how he befriended him and called for his repatriation when he was diagnosed with cancer, and visited him in Libya before his death.

Though one distinguished Scots lawyer who observed the trial told me that on the evidence presented the only possible verdict had been delivered, an opinion which the Scottish courts have continued to uphold, it subsequently seemed clear that there were weaknesses it the Crown case and that the evidence of its chief witness was tainted and therefore cannot be thought reliable.

It is hard to read this book without concluding that Dr Swire is right, and that for reasons which are both understandable and shameful, successive British governments repeatedly obstructed the investigation and that they did so at the instigation of our American allies. That said, one has in any trial or account of an investigation to remember that things tend to be convincing when you are hearing only one side of the argument, one version of the story. This book recounts Dr Swine’s long and painful search for the truth about Lockerbie, and his version is persuasive. It is disturbing too because, if Dr Swire has it right, the Scottish judges who have now three times rejected appeals against the original verdict, have made it hard to have confidence in the integrity of our law. Lockerbie was a disaster; what caused it remains a mystery.

The Lockerbie Bombing, by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph, Birlinn, 256pp, £14.99

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