Support Skift’s Independent JournalismMake a Contribution Now
The death of the only man to have been convicted of the Lockerbie bombing – when Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Scotland in the week before Christmas 1988, means it is less likely than ever that the full story behind the outrage will be told.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi who died in Tripoli on Sunday, two years and nine months after his release from a Scottish jail, always protested his innocence.
The 60-year-old, whose imminent death had been predicted on several occasions since his return to Libya, had, according to US and UK authorities been a Libyan intelligence officer as well as head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines and director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tripoli.
In November 1991, he and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah were indicted in the US and Scotland for the bombing which killed 259 passengers and crew on the Pan Am jet and 11 people on the ground. Libya refused to extradite them, though they were kept under arrest in Tripoli.
However, eight years later they were handed over after complex negotiations that led to their being prosecuted under Scottish law, at a court with three judges but no jury, in the Netherlands. In January 2001, Megrahi was convicted of 270 murders and jailed for life. Fhimah was acquitted.
The Libyan government paid $2.7bn (£1.7bn) in compensation and accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials while not admitting direct responsibility for the bombing. Megrahi was jailed first at Barlinnie, in Glasgow, and later at Greenock. His wife and children moved to Scotland too.
Years of legal wrangling followed, with an appeal rejected in 2002, and a £1.1m investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) that found there were six grounds where a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.
A full appeal got under way in April 2009. But it was dropped suddenly the following August, two days before Megrahi was put aboard a plane to Tripoli. Climbing aboard the plane, he wore a white shell-suit to hide body armour. He had been transferred from prison in a bombproof vehicle accompanied by security officers, also wearing body armour and drawing enhanced danger pay.
International furore erupted over the release, with allegations it had been sanctioned by the UK government in order to secure more business and oil deals with the Gaddafi regime. Gordon Brown’s administration was forced to admit it had known in advance of the release but that it had been a matter for the Scottish justice system. Nonetheless, David Miliband, then foreign secretary, made no apology for protecting business links with Libya. “With the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and extensive gas reserves, Libya is potentially a major energy source in the future”, he told MPs at Westminster. David Cameron always said that Megrahi should have died in jail.
Even as the Gadaffis faced overthrow last year, state TV showed Megrahi at a rally in support of the threatened rulers. But when rebel forces took control of Tripoli and discovered Megrahi apparently close to death, the national transitional council said he would not be returned to Britain.
Late last year, the new Tripoli government gave Britain some encouragement to mount fresh investigations, both into Lockerbie and the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher in London in 1984.
Megrahi’s family insisted he was too ill to be seen by British officials and in March this year Libyan officials appeared to rule out the possibility of UK detectives travelling to Libya to conduct new inquiries for the foreseeable future.
However, Frank Mulholland, the Lord Advocate and Scotland’s chief law officer, recently visited Tripoli with the FBI chief Robert Mueller to kickstart talks about getting access to records from Gaddafi’s regime and potential suspects, believed to include the former Libyan head of intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi.
While many relatives of Lockerbie victims remain convinced of Megrahi’s guilt, there are some, particularly in Britain, who believe he is innocent.
John Ashton, Megrahi’s biographer and author of Megrahi: You Are My Jury, said: “I think there will be moves to reopen the appeal. That has yet to be decided. I would very much hope that his appeal is resurrected and that somebody does make an application to the SCCRC. The people best placed to do this would be his family.”
The SCCRC and Megrahi’s legal team believe they uncovered a series of critical flaws in his conviction, which made it highly likely he would be cleared by an appeal.
Ashton’s biography quotes Megrahi stating he was “framed” for the attack. While he refused to blame Dumfries and Galloway police, he accused the Crown Office of “a blatant breach” of their obligations to disclose all the evidence in the case. “If I was a terrorist, then I was an exceptionally stupid one,” Megrahi said.
The grounds of appeal included compelling evidence that the chief prosecution witness, Tony Gauci, had wrongly identified Megrahi and linked him to the bomb which brought down the plane; new evidence that Gauci and his brother were paid very large rewards after the conviction; new scientific evidence disputed evidence that the type of timer in the bomb was solely used by the Libyans; and failure to disclose a break-in at Heathrow airport near Flight 103 which could easily have allowed the bomb to be planted.
Ashton, who had worked as Megrahi researcher during the Libyan’s appeal, said he was upset by his death. “We have always expected this day to come; we’d been expecting it for three years, but it’s still shattering. It’s still pretty shocking. I had come to like him. For all he had been through, there was remarkably little rancour. He was, all things considered, very gracious and never lashed out at those closest to him.”
Their claims are rejected by the Scottish and UK governments and the Crown Office, the Scottish prosecution service, which has reopened its investigation into the case after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and has sought cooperation from the new Libyan civilian government.
The UK and US authorities have repeatedly brushed off claims by campaigners that the bomb was planted by Syrian agents and Palestinian terrorists in revenge for the attack on an Iranian passenger airliner by a US warship.
The Scottish first minister Alex Salmond said: “The Lockerbie case remains a live investigation, and Scotland’s criminal justice authorities have made clear that they will rigorously pursue any new lines of inquiry. ”
Jim Swire, whose daughter was a passenger on Pan Am 103 told Sky News: “It’s a very sad event. Right up to the end he was determined – for his family’s sake, he knew it was too late for him, but for his family’s sake – how the verdict against him should be overturned.
“And also he wanted that for the sake of those relatives who had come to the conclusion after studying the evidence that he wasn’t guilty, and I think that’s going to happen.”