Lockerbie bombing: Divided on Megrahi’s guilt

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, pictured at Camp Zeist. Picture: AP
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, pictured at Camp Zeist. Picture: AP
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AT 7:03pm on 21 December, 1988, a bomb exploded aboard the “Maid of the Seas” Boeing 747, at an altitude of 31,000ft, and all hope was gone for the 259 passengers and crew flying from London to New York.

As the wreckage of Pan Am flight 103 cascaded through the night sky and hit the ground, another 11 victims were claimed in the Borders town of Lockerbie.

Initially, a tragic accident was feared, but it soon became apparent that the gravest criminal act in Scottish legal history had been committed. The question then became: by whom?

The investigation was a mammoth task. While much of the wreckage had landed in and around Lockerbie, lighter debris had been caught by a west wind and carried as far as the North Sea. It was still being picked up on radar screens at

least half an hour after the blast. The search for material which could be submitted for intricate scientific analysis was a painstaking exercise and continued month after month, and covered an area of more than 810 square miles, much

of it desolate moorland and woods on both sides of the Border.

Police and volunteers scoured the countryside in lines, moving forward in regimented style and often having to work on their hands and knees in undergrowth. Many items were handed in by members of the public.

Eventually, the authorities came to believe that the jigsaw had been completed. High performance Semtex plastic explosives had been concealed in a Toshiba “Bombeat” radio cassette which was in a bronze Samsonite hard-shell suitcase along with a quantity of clothing.

The contention was that the suitcase, with an Air Malta luggage tag giving New York as its destination, had been loaded on to a plane at Luqa airport, Malta, and flown to Frankfurt, Germany, where it joined a Pan Am feeder flight to London Heathrow. At Heathrow, the case had been transferred to a baggage container and loaded on to Pan Am flight 103.

At first, Palestinian terrorists who saw the United States as Israel’s greatest ally were suspected. A couple of months before the bombing, a cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command had been broken in Germany and bomb-making equipment, Toshiba radios and a Pan-Am timetable wereseized.

However, it was Libya which was utimately seen as the culprit, in revenge for a US bombing raid on Tripoli in 1986 when members of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s family were killed.

In 1991, Lord Fraser, QC, then Scotland’s Lord Advocate, obtained a warrant for the arrest of two Libyans, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Kalifa Fhimah. At the same time, an indictment was handed down by the US District Court of the District of Columbia.

The Crown was adamant that Megrahi had been a senior officer in the Libyan intelligence services (JSO) and that Fhimah, his close friend, had provided crucial assistance in getting the bomb-laden unaccompanied suitcase on to the flight from Malta, where Fhimah had been the Libyan Arab Airlines station manager.

Libya refused to give up its citizens for a trial in either Scotland or the US. Resolutions by the UN Security Council failed to resolve the impasse, and an anticipated breakthrough in 1994 failed to materialise. Professor Robert Black, QC, of Edinburgh University, and Dr Ibrahim Legwell, then head of the Libyan defence team, agreed on a trial in a neutral venue before a panel of inter national judges. Britain and the US refused the compromise, continuing to demand a trial in either Scotland or the US.

It took more years of political wrangling before an agreement was finally reached.

Under it, the trial would be held in the Netherlands, under Scots law, and although there would be no jury, the verdict would be delivered by three Scottish judges.

In April, 1999, Megrahi and Fhimah surrendered for trial at Kamp van Zeist, a former US airbase, near Utrecht.

The trial opened on 3 May 2000, and the verdicts were delivered on 31 January, 2001.

The presiding judge, Lord Sutherland, announced that he and his colleagues, Lords Coulsfield and MacLean, had determined that Fhimah should be acquitted, declaring him not guilty. However, they had been satisfied that various strands of circumstantial evidence had proved Megrahi’s guilt and he was convicted of murdering the 270 victims.

The judges stated that there was “nothing in the evidence which leaves us with any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the first accused.”

While Fhimah returned to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli, Megrahi remained in the prison at Kamp van Zeist to await the hearing of an appeal.

It took place, before five judges, Lord Cullen, the Lord Justice-General, and Lords Kirkwood, Osborne, Macfadyen and Nimmo Smith, in early 2002. Unanimously, they rejected the appeal and upheld the conviction.Megrahi was flown to Scotland to serve a life sentence, and told he would spent a minimum of 27 years in prison.

Supporters continued to raise questions about Megrahi’s conviction, and his case was considered by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. It is the body which can send a case back to the appeal court if it believes a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.

After an investigation costing more than £1 million and lasting almost four years, the commission decided in 2007 that Megrahi should have a second appeal. Particular concerns were raised about a key element of the prosecution’s case at the trial – the evidence of Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci who had said Megrahi “resembled a lot” the person who bought clothing in his store, the clothing which was packed inside the suitcase with the bomb.

The appeal became dogged by preliminary issues, and it was not until April this year, almost two years after the referral, that the first of Megrahi’s many grounds of appeal came to be heard.

History will show that a ruling was never made. Megrahi, stricken by prostate cancer, announced, while the appeal judges were considering their decision, that he was abandoning the appeal.

He was then released from prison on compassionate grounds and allowed to fly home to Libya to have his final weeks with his family.

He remained a convicted man in the eyes of the law, but people around the world remained divided on his guilt. If it could have been decided at the second appeal, the chance was gone.