Megrahi: The “Great Lockerbie Whitewash”

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A description of the fate of Pan Am Flight 103 is carved into the Lockerbie Cairn in Section 1 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, United States. (Photo: AFP - Chip Somodevilla)

By: Peter Speetjens

Published Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Death has apparently reached the doorstep of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. News reports indicate that the 59-year-old Libyan has fallen into a coma. Few in Europe and the US will pity al-Megrahi, who for years has been depicted as the personification of evil itself. The great tragedy is that Megrahi may in fact be innocent. If this were the case, al-Megrahi’s fate stands as a grim reminder that international justice is at times sacrificed at the altar of political interest and manipulation.

A close examination of the case against al-Megrahi raises serious doubts about the validity of the evidence used to convict him. In January 2001, three judges sentenced al-Megrahi to life imprisonment for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, killing 270 people. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was released from jail on compassionate grounds in 2009.

Looking back at the judges' ruling, it is quite shocking to see how they reached their conclusion on the flimsiest of evidence. Firstly, the three Scottish judges who issued the ruling thought it proven beyond reasonable doubt that al-Megrahi planted a suitcase filled with explosives on a plane flying from Luga airport in Malta to Frankfurt, where the luggage changed planes to end up on the fatal Pan Am flight heading to the US via London.

The judges indirectly admitted, however, they had little clue as to how al-Megrahi managed to do so. “If the unaccompanied bag was launched from Luga, the method by which it was done is not established, and the Crown accepted they could not point to any specific route by which the suitcase could have been loaded,” the verdict reads.

The “proof” was a print out from Frankfurt Airport stating that one unaccompanied bag went on the flight from Frankfurt to London, which “may” have originated in Malta, while al-Megrahi was at Luga airport that same morning. Yet, al-Megrahi had left on a different flight, while no one had seen him having or checking in any luggage.

Stranger still, all 55 bags on the plane from Malta to Frankfurt were checked against the passenger list and no unaccompanied bag was reported. What’s more, if the suitcase indeed changed planes in Frankfurt, the suitcase would have been scanned by X-ray, which would arguably have shown the explosives. The judges disregarded that by saying that the staff at the German airport were poorly trained.

The second piece of evidence linking al-Megrahi to the Pan Am bombing was a tiny fragment of a timing device. An FBI agent named Thomas Thurman had identified it as being part of a timer to detonate explosives. According to him, it was made by a Swiss firm and exclusively sold to Libya.

The firm’s owner, however, stated in court he had also sold such devices to East Germany. Yet the judges disqualified him as an “unreliable witness.” Ironically, it later emerged that Thurman had given false evidence in several American murder trials, while he had also exaggerated his academic qualifications.

The timing device was only found three weeks after the bombing. It was hidden in a charred piece of shirt. Strangely, a Scottish policeman had labeled it as just “cloth.” Only some time later it was overwritten by the word “debris.” The judges admitted there was no satisfactory explanation as to why this had been done. Attempts to do so “were at worst evasive and at best confusing,” the judges concluded. And yet they accepted the device as evidence.

In 2005, a retired Scottish police officer issued a written statement that the fragment had been planted by the CIA. The American intelligence agency had a keen interest in the Lockerbie case from the start. It reportedly searched the remains of the bombed plane for two days before the police investigation started.

CNN Exclusive image from video shows a comatose Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi at his house in Tripoli, Libya. (Photo: AFP - Nic Robertson)

The third and final piece of evidence was a witness, Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper from Malta. He was “a highly important element in the case,” according to the judges, as some of the clothes in the bomb suitcase had been bought from his shop. Ten years after the event took place, Gauci was confronted with photographs of al-Megrahi. Gauci testified that al-Megrahi resembled the man who had bought the clothes.

In an amazing piece of legal arguing, the judges concluded, “There are situations where a careful witness who will not commit himself beyond saying that 'there is a close resemblance' can be regarded as more reliable and convincing than a witness who maintains that his identification is 100 percent."

Scottish police had visited Gauci as early as 1989. But then they were not looking for any Libyans. They showed Gauci photos of members of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command (PFLP-GC). Immediately after the Lockerbie bombing, the most common theory was that Jibril’s outfit had been paid by Iran (and Syria) to bring down a US airliner to avenge the Americans shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1988. For two years, this was hammered home by British and American politicians and echoed by western media. Libya was not even mentioned.

In the mid-1990s, some substantial evidence appeared. It turned out that on 26 October 1988 German police had arrested members of a PFLP-GC cell that possessed several Toshiba radio-cassette players with a built-in bomb. This was apparently the same device that was used to blow up Pan Am flight 103.

And that is not all. On 5 December 1988, a man rang the US embassy in Helsinki warning that a woman, unknowingly, would carry a bomb on board of a Pan Am flight leaving from Frankfurt. The warning was publicized by the US embassy in Moscow, which prompted a majority of the staff to cancel their Pan Am flights back home. This is probably why 159 seats on the fatal Pan Am flight were empty.

When Pan Am security officials asked US intelligence about the phone call, they were told it was a hoax. Consequently, the airliner never issued a public warning, nor did the British and American governments. The fact that a real attack of such magnitude was earlier dismissed as a hoax was one reason British authorities refused to hold a public inquiry into the Lockerbie case.

The finger of blame directed towards the PFLP-GC, Syria, and Iran only changed direction in 1991. At that point, the US needed Syrian and Iranian support in the Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, which it received. Suddenly, two Libyan agents were accused of the Lockerbie bombing: al-Megrahi and Al-Lamin Khalifa Fhimah. The latter was not convicted, as the main witness against him, Abdul Majid Giaka, turned out to be a former Libyan agent on the payroll of the CIA. One of the very few things the three Scottish judges got right in the trial was to throw Giaka out of court.

In 1992, before a final verdict was reached, the UN Security Council imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya, which was only lifted in 2004 when Gaddafi agreed to pay US$2.7 billion to the families of Lockerbie victims.

To make a long story short, despite the 2001 verdict, the Lockerbie bombing remains a mystery. We will arguably never know who was behind it. The one thing we do know is that the current narrative stinks. The 2001 verdict seems about as watertight as a colander. We know this due to the relentless efforts of one British journalist, the late and great Paul Foot. Where most mainstream media loyally served their readers what they had been spoon-fed by spokespeople, spooks, and politicians, Foot stayed on the case for 12 longs years, the case he eventually called “The Great Lockerbie Whitewash.”


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