Megrahi and the Lockerbie bombing

In December 1988, I was living in a single room in a two hundred year old block of flats in Edinburgh that looked every year of its age. I was a student: I didn’t own a TV: and my only access to the Internet was via the university’s mainframe and terminals, and on the night of 21st December, I was on my Christmas break. The Lockerbie bombing was headlines in the papers next day, and for some time after that, and the source of the question airline staff are required to ask: “Did you pack your luggage yourself? Did anyone give you anything to carry?”

Lockerbie is a small town in Dumfries and Galloway, 74 miles from Edinburgh by car: the fastest way to get there by train is via Manchester. The Lockerbie Creamery has been making cheese and butter for more than fifty years, but ever since 1988 whenever I see “Lockerbie”, even on the wrapping of a dairy product, I think bombing, plane crash, death.

Three years after the Lockerbie bombing, I heard two men had been indicted (by the then-Lord Advocate, Peter Fraser: Baron, QC, and briefly a Conservative MP) and over eleven years later, the Scottish court set up in the Netherlands. A special reminder has been added to Scottish jury duty notices ever since, warning potential jurors that in principle they can be asked to serve in Scots courts anywhere in the world. Just over twelve years and one month after the Lockerbie bombing, one of the men indicted was convicted, 31st January 2001, over 11 years ago: Megrahi went to jail in Inverclyde, sentenced for life.

But for most of that time, there has been an awful niggling doubt as to whether Megrahi was actually guilty. Hans Köchler, the UN Observer at the trial, didn’t seem to think so. William Blum wrote, over a decade ago:

What was wrong was that the evidence against Megrahi was thin to the point of transparency. Coming the month after the (s)election of George W. Bush, the Hague verdict could have been dubbed Supreme Court II, another instance of non-judicial factors fatally clouding judicial reasoning. The three Scottish judges could not have relished returning to the United Kingdom after finding both defendants innocent of the murder of 270 people, largely from the U.K. and the United States. Not to mention having to face dozens of hysterical victims’ family members in the courtroom. The three judges also well knew the fervent desires of the White House and Downing Street as to the outcome. If both men had been acquitted, the United States and Great Britain would have had to answer for a decade of sanctions and ill will directed toward Libya.

One has to read the entire 26,000-word “Opinion of the Court”, as well as being very familiar with the history of the case going back to 1988, to appreciate how questionable was the judges’ verdict.

I didn’t have to think Megrahi was an innocent victim (he worked for Gaddhafi, he’d probably done horrible things) to find it significantly worrying if for all of those years British, Scottish, and American justice had been focussed on bringing two men to trial for the Lockerbie bombing who hadn’t actually done it. Because that meant the people or organisations who were guilty … were being ignored.

I knew (it came up in news reports every so often) that Megrahi’s appeal against his sentence was being considered by the Scottish court, and had been since 2003. When Megrahi was released, on 20th August 2009, it was on condition that he drop his appeal. He had prostate cancer: he was dying. Doctors who examined him on 10th August had been of the opinion that he had about three months to live, which was very likely true had he remained confined in Greenock prison in Inverclyde.

The victims of a crime ought to be a priority in any civilised country. (Sign e-petition, please.)

But a civilised country does not behave cruelly towards prisoners simply for the sake of doing so.

You may read in a Scottish Prison Service memo dated 6th June 2005 about the grounds of compassionate release on parole. A prisoner suffering from a terminal illness; death is expected to occur soon: there are no time-limits set, though “three months” is considered to be appropriate.

Megrahi outlived the medical estimates. People do. Even if he were certainly guilty – and his conviction remains in doubt even though he dropped the appeal to be able to go home – this would not make his release wrong.

As Alan Cochrane notes in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that this was some grand conspiracy cooked up between Blair and Brown at Westminster and Alex Salmond in Holyrood is completely absurd to anyone with the lightest familiarity with British politics.

Megrahi’s conviction was dubious. He may well have been stitched up for political purposes. The investigation of the Lockerbie bombing was compromised from the start:

Perhaps the result could have been different if there had been an entirely Scottish police investigation, with unrestricted access to all available information, without interference or manipulation from outside. Instead, from the beginning, the investigation and what were to become the most important aspects of the prosecution case against al-Megrahi were hijacked. Within hours, the countryside around Lockerbie was occupied: local people helping with the search under the supervision of Dumfries and Galloway police realised to their astonishment that the terrain was dotted with unidentified Americans not under the command of the local police.

Each aspect of every criminal investigation in Britain has to meet certain essential standards; where they are not met, these parts of the investigation should not in principle become the basis of a prosecution. There must be precise notes made of each physical exhibit found and by whom; its movements must be tracked; each time an exhibit is inspected, a record must be kept. The rationale is obvious: without a precise record, interference, contamination or simple mistakes could jeopardise a prosecutor’s reliance on evidence that should be tangible and therefore potentially more convincing. For that reason, a crime scene must be sealed off until searches are complete.

But Megrahi was forced to drop his appeal in order to have his release on parole considered. Was his appeal to have his conviction reconsidered being denied and delayed for political reasons? No judiciary is ever happy to admit that they just screwed up.

Megrahi’s release was in accordance with Scottish principles of compassion and according to Scots law (see discussion here): he was going to die. He was not considered a threat. Once released, he could not be held in Scotland – and Libya was willing to receive him. That he outlived expectations is nothing any politician need apologise for.

Martina Navratilova, naturalised US citizen since 1981, said in 2002:

“The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the U.S. manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”

For this she was accused of being anti-American and unpatriotic. But the main problem is, as I see it, that it’s not just the Republicans.

US news sources are notoriously uninterested in any news from the world outside the US unless it directly affects an American. No one would sensibly expect US news media to be in the least concerned with the political background that makes a conspiracy involving both Tony Blair and Alex Salmond so improbable. (But it is as impossible as the idea that Nancy Pelosi would have conspired with George W. Bush.)

But it is also impossible, it seems, for a US news source to strongly query the conviction of Megrahi – to be concerned about who may be actually guilty of the PanAm 103 bombing. From news sources all across the US now Megrahi is dead, I see no acknowledgement that nearly a quarter of a century after the plane exploded over Lockerbie, we still don’t know who did it.

Primarily, as in the Charlotte Observer (Virginia) they want to get quotes from people who lost family on PanAm 109:

Some relatives attended al-Megrahi’s trial in the Netherlands. When he was released to Libya from a Scottish prison in 2009 on humanitarian grounds – he was supposedly close to death – they were outraged, especially after al-Megrahi lived far longer than the few months the doctors had predicted.

Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose daughter was among the Syracuse University students on the flight, said al-Megrahi deserved no compassion. “The fact that he was able to get out and live with his family these past few years is an appalling miscarriage of justice. There was no excuse for that,” Cohen said Sunday. “He should have died in the Scottish prison. He should have been tried in the United States and faced capital punishment.”

The views of other victims’ families on al-Megrahi’s role in the bombing vary widely.

“Megrahi is the 271st victim of Lockerbie,” said David Ben-Ayreah, who represents some British families of victims. He attended the trial and still believes al-Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing.

But Eileen Walsh, a Glen Rock, N.J., resident whose father, brother and sister died in the explosion said she was “very happy” to hear about al-Megrahi’s death. She had just attended Mass on Sunday when she received numerous text messages.

“I’m glad he’s gone, but there’s no real closure. There’s nothing but a bad taste in my mouth,” she said.

In Florida’s Miami Herald, the focus is on a Miami resident:

Victoria Cummock’s war against Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime outlived the notorious strongman, and now will outlive the one man convicted of bombing the airplane that killed Cummock’s husband 24 years ago. On Sunday, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi died of prostate cancer at his home in Tripoli, Libya. He had lived there for almost three years after Scotland freed him from prison on a “humanitarian” waiver in 2009 after he had served eight years of his life sentence. At the time, he was given just months to live.

The decision appalled Cummock, and she expressed little satisfaction in Megrahi’s death. “I feel a sense of relief that he is gone,” Cummock, 59, said Sunday from her Miami home. “There really is no sense of justice.”

Cummock spent Sunday conducting about a dozen interviews with news media worldwide, reflecting her role as perhaps the leading voice for relatives of the 270 people killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.

In Madison (Wisconsin) Channel3000 reports:

The fury grew as he lived long past the time doctors had expected him to survive. U.S. senators including Robert Menedez and Frank Lautenberg, both New Jersey Democrats, and Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, called for an investigation into why he was set free.

“This man was a horrible man,” Schumer said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “It would have been better had he not died in freedom, but died in prison. That’s what he deserved, and i still believe that the Scottish government, perhaps with the participation of the British government, created a major injustice when they let him out.”

“he only legacy we have is in the memory of all those who were lost,” Schumer added. “…We have to just make sure we continue this battle against terrorism on airplanes. We made great progress and we have to keep it up.”

As rebels swept into Tripoli two years after al Megrahi’s release, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic called for him to be extradited, with the Americans demanding a trial in the United States, and British lawmakers saying he should return to prison in Scotland.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson tracked al Megrahi down last year at the palatial villa Moammar Gadhafi had built for him during his reign as Libyan leader. Al Megrahi was apparently in a coma and near death. His family said al Megrahi’s son and mother were trying to care for him with oxygen and an intravenous drip, but with no medical advice.

And the Pocono Record (Pennsylvania) headlines simply

“Lockerbie bomber Megrahi dies in Libya”

and references Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond being “forced to deny” the accusations that “political convenience and business interests in Libya” were behind Megrahi’s release.

Doctor Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed on the 103 flight, wrote yesterday:

On my first actually meeting Baset in Greenock prison, he was calm but determined to clear his name. He must have known that we had campaigned for years to have him tried under Scots law. Yet there was not a word of complaint, though his cancer, already giving him pain on sitting, was then in evidence.

A devout Muslim, he had a Christmas card from the prison shop ready for me, on it he had written ‘Dr Swire and family, please pray for me and my family’.

I treasure it. It resoundingly trumps the arrogance of the comment from Zeist, quoted above. It drains the poison from it.

Baset’s excellent mastery of English, and his good natured but wholehearted support for certain Scottish football teams, made him popular with the other prisoners almost all who met him, both at Greenock and at Barlinnie, came to believe him innocent. Meeting him, with his calm and intelligent summing up of his predicament spoke of determination to ensure that the world should learn that the verdict was unjust.

At least before he died we learned what he already knew: that the whole story that a Libyan bomb using a long running timer had started its journey from Malta was not a fable, but a myth*. The famed timer fragment ‘PT35b’ could never have been part of one of the Libyan timers allegedly used. There is now no valid evidence left from the court that either Malta, her flag carrier airline, or Baset’s own country were involved. Baset has a valid alibi: he was in Malta that day! He died knowing that in the end the truth will emerge.

I don’t share his confidence. Since January 2002, after Guantanamo Bay; since March 2003, when it became clear the US would declare war on Iraq with information openly known outside the US to be fraudulent; since the exposure of the CIA and MI5 involvement in torture and extra-judicial imprisonment, in kidnapping and extraordinary rendition – I don’t expect justice or truth to emerge from a crime scene contaminated by CIA investigators from the start.

Stella Rimington bragged in the 1994 Dimbleby Lecture “Security and Democracy in the Modern World” that it was MI5 played a major part in laying the blame for the Lockerbie bombing “firmly at the door of Libya” – but we’re unlikely to find out anything about that until 2017 at earliest, and maybe not even then.

Megrahi’s indictment was doubtful, his arrest was political, the verdict that condemned him was dubious – and those actually responsible for the Lockerbie bombing are unknown and likely to remain so.

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Filed under American, Human Rights, Justice, Scottish Politics

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