A member of the ‘Lockerbie bomber’s’ legal team says the evidence suggests he was INNOCENT
By John Ashton – The death of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, better known as the Lockerbie bomber, brought relief to relatives of the 270 killed in the 1988 outrage. The Libyan, however, always protested his innocence. Now an extraordinary new book, written by a member of his legal team, invites us to think the unthinkable . . .
This is what is supposed to have happened on the day of the Lockerbie disaster; what the prosecution argued, what they successfully persuaded three of Scotland’s most senior judges was indeed the case at Megrahi’s trial in 2000.
On the morning of December 21, 1988, Megrahi and his co-defendant Lamin Fhimah somehow smuggled a brown Samsonite suitcase on to Air Malta flight KM-180 from Malta to Frankfurt.
In that suitcase, the prosecution said, were clothes bought from a local shop by Megrahi on a previous visit to the island on December 7 and a bomb contained in a Toshiba RT-SF16 radio-cassette player, a model sold in its thousands in Libya.
Both men, it was alleged, were members of the Libyan intelligence service, the Jamahiriya Security Organisation, while the timer used in the Lockerbie bombing, the prosecution would claim, was one of just 20 supplied exclusively to Libyan intelligence.
Using legitimate luggage labels that Fhimah — who until recently had been station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines at Malta’s Luqa airport — had illegally obtained, the two men ensured the unaccompanied suitcase made its way to Frankfurt Airport, where it was loaded on to a flight to Heathrow, where it was put on Pan Am’s evening flight to New York, PA103.
At 7.03pm, 38 minutes into the flight and with the Boeing 747 at a height of 31,000ft, the bomb exploded over Lockerbie, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 residents on the ground.
Almost from the outset, the finger of suspicion was being pointed, both privately by Western intelligence agencies and publicly by the world’s media, at Iran.
After all, it was less than six months since the American battle cruiser USS Vincennes, on patrol in the Persian Gulf, had shot down Iran Air flight 655, killing all 290 people on board, many of whom were travelling to Mecca on the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
The Americans claimed their ship believed itself to be under attack, President Ronald Reagan offered no apology and the Iranians swore revenge.
The deaths would be avenged ‘in blood-spattered skies’ warned Iran’s state radio, while President Ali Khamenei promised that his country, in its search for vengeance, would employ ‘all our might… wherever and whenever we decide’.
As a result, Western intelligence agencies and airport security teams were not only on full alert at the time PA103 was brought down, they also had a pretty good idea where any attack might come from.
In October 1988, just two months before the attack on Flight 103, West German police had raided two apartments in Neuss and Frankfurt occupied by members of the terrorist group the Popular Front for a Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC).
In Frankfurt, they found an extraordinary terrorist arsenal, including 5kg of Semtex, 6kg of TNT, 16 sticks of dynamite, 30 grenades and six automatic rifles.
They also found assorted airline luggage stickers and 14 airline timetables.
But it was in Neuss that the police made the most significant discovery — a fully functional bomb hidden inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player armed not just with a time-delay switch, but also a barometric pressure switch. In other words, the bomb had been designed to detonate in the unpressurised cargo hold of an aircraft.
Within days of the raid, West German police knew, after interrogating the bombmaker, that they hadn’t found all the PFLP-GC terrorists or, indeed, all the bombs.
So when Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie only two months later, the finger of blame couldn’t have pointed more firmly to Palestinian terrorists acting on behalf of — and probably being handsomely paid by — Iran.
So how is it that 23 years after Flight 103 fell out of the sky, the only man to be found guilty of the attack has been a solitary Libyan, Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, a former head of airline security for Libyan Arab Airlines?
The short answer is that the West was desperate not to upset Iran any further at the time, not least because Western hostages were being held in Lebanon and Iranian influence might secure their release.
Under Colonel Gaddafi, Libya had become the West’s favourite whipping boy, a state sponsor of terrorism that could be conveniently blamed — especially with the help of CIA-backed disinformation — for just about every terrorist outrage.
Within 18 months of the disaster, this suddenly and unexpectedly included Lockerbie, thanks to one extraordinary forensic breakthrough.
A tiny fragment of printed circuit board that had been found embedded in a piece of clothing recovered from the widely-scattered wreckage was matched by American investigators to an electronic timer that had been supplied exclusively to Libyan Intelligence.
And it’s here that the prosecution got so lucky that it almost defies belief.
For not only was the timer made by a small Swiss electronics company, Mebo, that just happened to share a building in Zurich with a trading company Megrahi was an investor in, but the clothing could also be traced to one particular shop in the Maltese town of Sliema, where the shopkeeper miraculously identified Megrahi as the man who had bought it.
This positive identification was central to the prosecution case, for it suggested Megrahi had bought the clothes and put them in the brown Samsonite suitcase that contained the Lockerbie bomb.
With astonishing powers of recall — even though he wasn’t interviewed by police until eight months after the disaster — the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, remembered that the clothes had been sold to a strangely behaved man. He particularly remembered the man buying an umbrella because it started to rain as he left the shop.
Gauci was also able to work out the likely date — it was just before the Christmas street decorations were put up, while his brother Paul was at home watching European football on TV.
By a process of elimination, he said that made it either the Wednesday of November 23 or December 7, with the difference being crucial. On November 23, there was no suggestion Megrahi was in Malta, but on December 7, by his own admission, he definitely was.
Extraordinarily, Gauci could even provide an accurate description of the man: 6ft-plus, well-built, clean-shaven, dark-skinned and about 50 years old.
The only problem was that Megrahi was 36 at the time, 5ft 8in and slightly built. And yet by the time of his trial, more than 11 years later, Gauci’s idea of what this strangely behaved man looked like had changed so much that he had no problem confirming that the man in the dock certainly resembled his mystery purchaser.
Despite the three judges admitting they weren’t totally convinced by this partial identification, in their summing-up they indicated they were convinced enough.
The Scottish judges accepted that it was Megrahi who bought the clothes on December 7, despite the fact that no evening rain was recorded at a local weather station just 5km from Gauci’s shop in Sliema, a town where meteorologists put the chances of it raining at no more than one in ten.
Would the judges have been so confident had they known the extent to which the shopowner and his brother Paul may have been ‘incentivised’ in their evidence by the prospect of financial reward.
Tony Gauci knew a reward was on offer and inquired about payment before he first picked out a photograph of Megrahi in February 1991. His brother Paul, who didn’t give evidence at the trial but was considered an important part of the case, frequently raised the subject with the police.
One of the most sensational items it unearthed was a letter written in 2002 by the senior investigation officer of the Scottish police team to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Terrorist And Violent Crime Unit after Megrahi’s first appeal had been unsuccessful.
In it, the senior investigating officer recommended that Tony Gauci — the most important witness against Megrahi — be paid $2 million and his brother Paul $1 million under the department’s Reward Programme (which they later were). He even urged the department to pay more, if that was within the scheme’s rules.
As the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission concluded, with what many would feel was some understatement, this financial payment ‘was capable of affecting the course of the evidence and the eventual outcome of the trial’.
Financial incentive also discredited another key witness at the original trial, Abdul Majid Giaka, who in 1988 was a low-ranking, 28-year-old Libyan Intelligence officer on secondment to Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta and, therefore — for a while, at least — a colleague of Megrahi’s.
The two men did not get on, as became clear the day Giaka entered the American embassy in Malta and asked to talk to a CIA officer.
It was August 1988, four months before Lockerbie, and what Giaka wanted was simple: in exchange for money and being relocated to the United States, he would supply the Americans with sensitive information about Libya.
Being junior and based in Malta rather than Tripoli, he began with his immediate colleagues, implicating Megrahi and the eventual co-defendant Fhimah in terrorist activities, and alleging that the former had brought a cache of explosives to the island as long ago as 1985.
For the first time, Megrahi was on the CIA’s radar.
But Giaka proved an unreliable double agent, and his CIA handlers soon lost patience with his constant demands for money and bizarre medical treatments (he wanted disabling surgery on his arm to avoid military service) and the conspicuous lack of useful intelligence in return.
By December 1990, however, with the Lockerbie investigation now focusing on Libya and Megrahi, the CIA realised it needed its useless Libyan informant rather badly. And Giaka, his career in the doldrums, needed money.
In July 1991, he was spirited out of Malta and taken on board the USS Butte in international waters, where he was interviewed by two FBI officers.
Once again he implicated Megrahi and Fhimah. Yet only now could he suddenly remember that towards the end of 1988 — almost three years earlier — he had seen Megrahi and Fhimah meeting one or two men who appeared to have recently disembarked from a flight to Malta from Tripoli.
Crucially, he claimed he could recall Megrahi and Fhimah removing a large brown Samsonite suitcase from the luggage carousel.
It would have been the most damning piece of evidence — the final piece of the jigsaw, as far as the FBI was concerned, linking the crucial suitcase not only with Megrahi but also placing it in Malta and, before that, Libya. And it would have been damning, but for a ferocious legal argument at the original trial.
But some documents were missing, while others were heavily censored. This had everything to do with national security in the United States, the court was told, and nothing to do with the case against the defendants.
Only that wasn’t correct. When uncensored versions of the documents were eventually presented in the trial, it was discovered that most of the deleted material related to the CIA’s own doubts about their informant. In short, it knew he was a fantasist and a liar.
Giaka was completely discredited. Despite this, one of the most baffling aspects of the trial is that when the judges finally delivered their verdicts, Fhimah was found not guilty, while Megrahi was convicted. How could that possibly be, given Giaki’s evidence? Either they were both guilty if it was true, or both were not guilty if it was not.
In his report on the trial, the official United Nations observer, Professor Hans Kochler described the finding of only Megrahi being guilty as ‘incomprehensible’.
As Megrahi’s legal team prepared to attempt to overturn the verdict for a second time, one last, crucial piece of evidence was finally unearthed — evidence that would almost certainly have caused the case against him to collapse had it been known at the time of the original trial.
This evidence was never heard, because Megrahi was released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer before it was due to be presented in court.
For years, a cornerstone of the evidence of Libya’s involvement in the Lockerbie outrage — and, therefore, of Megrahi’s — was that tiny fragment of printed circuit board which had been found in one of the items of clothing bought from the Gaucis. The Americans had matched it to a small consignment of timers that had been sold to Libyan intelligence.
But exhaustive forensic tests carried out on behalf of Megrahi’s defence team proved in 2009 that although the fragment of circuit board apparently came from the bomb’s timer, it did not actually match any of the timers which had been sold to Libyan intelligence.
The Libyans had been supplied with timers whose copper circuitry was covered in an alloy of lead and tin. But the circuitry on the fragment from the Lockerbie bomb was covered only in tin.
It is a tiny difference, but a crucial one. There was now no evidence that the Lockerbie bomb had a Libyan timer.
In the event, at the original trial the judges recommended that a man they had sentenced to life imprisonment, a mass murderer who had killed 270 people, serve a minimum sentence of just 20 years. Ever since, the Megrahi team has spent years trying — successfully, I believe — to prove the Libyan was never guilty.
And while as a member of that team I accept that I may be regarded as party pris, it is surely difficult to avoid the feeling that the evidence against Megrahi was unreliable and that an innocent man had been convicted of committing the worst terrorist atrocity in British history.