While many in Britain and America have condemned the celebratory nature of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s Libyan return, they conveniently overlook the fact he was unlikely to be the Lockerbie bomber. The Scottish government released the 57 year old cancer suffering al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week after serving eight years of his life sentence. But dying or not, al-Megrahi says he is still intent on proving his innocence. “If there is justice in the UK I would be acquitted or the verdict would be quashed because it was unsafe,” he said this weekend. “There was a miscarriage of justice.”
Al-Megrahi has a good point; justice has always taken a back seat to politics in the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am flight 103 blew up over the small Scottish town a few nights before Christmas 1988 en route from London to New York. 270 people died - 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents on the ground. Scotland claimed jurisdiction for the crime as the plane was destroyed in Scottish airspace.
The initial suspect was a Syrian group with the unwieldy title of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC). The PFLP-GC had a motive by acting for Iran in revenge for the American attack on an Iranian Airlines passenger plane a few months earlier. Two years before Lockerbie, the group’s Syrian leader Ahmed Jibril had publicly warned there would be "no safety for any traveller on an Israeli or US airliner". Although PFLP-GC subsequently denied responsibility for Lockerbie, the early years of piecing together evidence focussed firmly on the Syria-Iran link.
But by 1990 Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Neighbouring Iran and Syria were now suddenly proxy-allies whom the west could not afford to alienate. The Lockerbie case refocussed on the “Malta connection” and later that year the US and British governments issued indictments of murder against two Libyan men Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. In 1991 the pair were back in Libya and the US and the UK requested their extradition. Libya refused as it had no extradition treaty with either country. Libya arrested the pair but a local prosecution went nowhere as US/UK refused to hand over their evidence. The UN then made an unprecedented move to impose sanctions for not complying with the extradition request. The sanctions lasted six years.
After years of negotiation the UK agreed to Libyan demands for it to take place in a neutral country due to concerns of safety and a fair trial. The juryless trial began in May 2000 in the Netherlands under Scottish law and three Scottish judges. The key evidence was the brown Samsonsite suitcase which contained the bomb hidden in a radio/cassette player. The clothing in the suitcase was purchased at a shop in Malta and the store owner swore that a Libyan he could not identify bought them. Al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was in Malta on the day of the purchase and stayed near the shop. He was unable to offer the court a reason for his stay on the island. This evidence plus his connections to airport security and the Swiss company that built the timer in the explosive device was enough to convict him. Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence.
The second defendant Fhimah was an acquaintance of al-Megrahi and an Air Malta employee. They both arrived in Malta on the same flight from Libya two days before the bombing. The prosecution argued Fhimah knew how to get unaccompanied baggage onto a plane but the court found no evidence to show he had assisted al-Megrahi and acquitted him. But with Fhimah’s acquittal part of the case against al-Megrahi collapsed too. How did he get the bomb out of Malta?
Also, as part of their defence under Scottish law, the pair accused the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC of carrying out the attack. A German police officer testified that PFLP-GC had the means and intention of attacking an airline but the timers and cassette player used were not consistent with other PFLP-GC attacks. A Jordanian agent Marwan Khreesat who had infiltrated the group said he had never seen radio cassette players with twin speakers converted into explosive devices. On the basis of the German and Jordanian evidence the court concluded the PFLP-GC did not make the bomb.
The UN appointed five observers to watch the trial. Of these only one, Professor Köchler from Innsbruck University, published his findings. Köchler concluded the trial was unfair based on two points of objection. He noted the extraordinary length of detention (though this had been requested by the defence to prepare its case) and said the “presence of foreigners” at the prosecution and defence tables hampered the judges’ ability to find the truth and introduced a political element to the case (though there was no evidence that the judges were swayed by the “foreigners”).
Al-Megrahi appealed against the sentence based on the strength of the evidence linking him to the fatal suitcase. There was also the startling evidence that emerged in September 2001. A former security guard at Heathrow named Ray Manley made a sworn affidavit he had told anti-terror police one of Pan Am's luggage rooms had been broken into on the night of the bombing. This evidence cast complete doubt on the whole Malta connection. But for many years Scotland fought the appeal process.
The Scottish law professor who negotiated the Netherlands trial says many people believe there was overt political pressure placed upon the judges. Robert Black says it was probably necessary to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to the British and American governments. “I think that consciously or subconsciously, these judges appreciated that if neither of the two Libyan accused were convicted in this trial, this would be an enormous embarrassment to the prosecution system in Scotland,” he said.
But by 2003, Libya was no longer a public enemy. Gaddafy told the Americans about his weapons capability. The west lifted international sanctions against Libya after it admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2005 and paid about $2.7bn in compensation to the victims’ families. Libya has since got that money back and much more in oil revenues. As The Times points out, al-Megrahi’s freedom is a further product of the effort to bring Libya out of dangerous isolation. “This is as much to America’s advantage as Britain’s, but Washington has too much baggage to be openly involved,” said The Times. And 20 years on, everyone is happy except the families of the Lockerbie victims who are still no closer to knowing who killed their loved ones.