The mystery behind Pan Am Flight 103 does not end with the death of Megrahi
It may be more than 23 years since the event that defined the life of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, but the Libyan’s death a week ago will not draw a line under Britain’s biggest every terrorist atrocity.
It seems there are more questions than answers over what led to the Lockerbie bombing. If Megrahi was innocent, as a growing number of campaigners insist, who were the real culprits?
It remains to be seen what impact the affair will have on Scotland’s political and legal reputation. Former MP Tam Dalyell said refusal to pursue an inquiry into the attack would leave an “indelible stain” on the country’s justice system.
He is not the only influential figure to question the Libyan’s involvement in blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 – a list of over 40 well-known signatories have also called for an inquiry, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Noam Chomsky, Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Terry Waite.
Dalyell told The Herald: “The SNP Government and Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill in particular are burying their heads in the sand on the Lockerbie issue. If they were to admit that Mr Megrahi had nothing to do with the crime of Lockerbie they would then by implication condemn the very institution which shows Scotland to be most separate from England – the justice system.” Prime Minister David Cameron has dismissed the possibility of a UK inquiry into the conviction of Megrahi, saying the court case which convicted Megrahi in 2001 in the Netherlands was properly conducted.
But First Minister Alex Salmond said it was still open to relatives of Megrahi or campaigners to lodge a fresh appeal against his conviction.
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.
Scotland’s senior law officer, the Lord Advocate, recently visited Libya, and we have been offered the co-operation of the new Libyan authorities.
It has always been the Crown’s position that Mr Megrahi did not act alone but with others.
“It is open for relatives of Mr Megrahi to apply to the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission (SCCRC) to seek a further appeal.
And the best, indeed the only, place for guilt or innocence to be determined is in a court of law.” But the SCCRC, which investigates possible miscarriages of justice, has already said there is doubt over the conviction – in 2008 it cited six areas of concern.
Opponents of the theory that Megrahi was innocent point to his first appeal, which was dismissed by a panel of five Scottish judges in March 2002.
Complicating matters was Megrahi’s decision to abandon his second appeal, which was making progress in 2008 when he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill visited Megrahi in Greenock prison as he had three options to consider – releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds, transferring him to Libya to serve out his sentence or keeping him in Scottish custody.
In August the following year, Megrahi suddenly and formally abandoned his appeal and two days later, MacAskill ordered his compassionate release.
Megrahi supporters have claimed the Libyan was forced to abandon the appeal to facilitate his release on compassionate grounds, a suggestion rejected by the Scottish Government.
That decision to let Megrahi return to his homeland has been the source of constant political friction domestically. Opposition politicians said the decision made a farce of Scottish justice and destroyed the country’s international reputation, mainly with the US.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton denounced the decision of Scottish authorities.
Even Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont just last week saw fit to apologise on “behalf of the people of Scotland” for Megrahi’s early release – comments that drew sharp criticism and ridicule.
Another accusation that gained momentum following Megrahi’s release was that it was part of Tony Blair’s deal-in-the-desert with Colonel Gaddafi. It is alleged the former PM paved the way for Megrahi’s release in exchange for big oil contracts for British firms. It is a claim denied outright by MacAskill.
For campaigners, the political debate has become a sideshow that has distracted from what really matters – the question of who carried out the bombing. The Justice for Megrahi group deny he had any involvement in the bombing at all, and some also suggest it was not the work of Libya.
The figurehead of Megrahi’s campaign over the years has been Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter, Flora, was one of the 270 victims.
Swire, who met with Megrahi in Libya in December, told this magazine: “I attended the trial at Zeist expecting to see my daughter’s murderers brought to justice – by half way in, it was clear it was all wrong.” Swire has reached some of his conclusions after talking to a former CIA agent and German security service officers. They convinced him that the type of bomb used to blow up the plane came not from Libya, but had all the hallmarks of the PFLP-GC, a pro-Palestinian terrorist group based in Damascus and linked to Iran.
And the sort of detonator device they used could have been effective only if loaded at Heathrow.
He believes that Iran was responsible for the bombing as revenge for the shooting down of an Iranair flight by an American missile in the summer of 1988 with the loss of 290 lives.
He said: “Iran swore she would get her revenge for the Iranair incident and I knew from senior international aviation experts that they expected it would take them about six months to set up revenge. I went into the court thinking the two Libyans must have been linked to Iran. They weren’t and that is one of the many things that make this conviction unsafe.” Another central argument is that Tony Gauci, the shopkeeper whose evidence identifying Megrahi was devastating at his trial, had been paid $2m by US authorities after the trial.
John Ashton, Megrahi’s biographer who worked for his legal team, said the Crown Office knew Gauci expressed an interest in being rewarded for his evidence prior to making a crucial identification of Megrahi.
“The Megrahi conviction is a huge scandal and there are some people with very serious questions to answer,” said Ashton.
But not everyone believes in Megrahi’s innocence, however. Carole Johnson, 68, from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, the mother of Beth Ann Johnson, a 21-year-old American student on the plane, said: “This is three years too late.
While I’m happy that he is dead, long ago I left it in the hands of God. I know exactly where he is, and I know it is quite hot. I’m sure he and Gaddafi are reunited again.” Frank Duggan, president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, said: “He was an unrepentant murderer and now I hope he will finally see justice.” But Swire insists American authorities fuelled a belief that Megrahi and his co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fahima, who was cleared of the charge, were guilty from the outset.
He said: “The majority of Lockerbie relatives think Megrahi is guilty because the majority are American,” he said. “During the trial the court set up facilities for the relatives. Every evening representatives of the prosecution would come into that lounge, often with representatives of the US department of justice, and the message they were peddling to the relatives was ‘look, these are the bastards that did it, we’re gonna get them, you’re gonna get satisfaction, Gaddafi and his henchmen destroyed the lives of your family’.
“This started right from the beginning and there was a presumption of guilt before the trial had got under way.” Despite the flaws with the original Megrahi trial, Swire insists the only way Scotland’s legal system can regain confidence is to reinvestigate the case and correct any mistakes.
“Before the trial in 2000 I campaigned for it to be held under Scots law as I thought it was amongst the fairest in the world and far superior to the US system.
“Anyone can criticise retrospectively and it is probably too easy to do so. But we cannot leave this the way it is. It is an insult on the memory of those who died.”