Pan Am Flight 103 and the Lockerbie controversy

The recent release on humanitarian grounds of Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, has reignited the whole controversy about the truth behind the bombing. Tom Fawthrop comments.

ON 21 December 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie in Scotland. That much the world is agreed upon, but not much else.

What really happened to Flight 103? Who planted the bomb on board? At which airport was the bomb inserted into the cargo hold - Malta, Frankfurt or London? Which intelligence agency and/or government sanctioned and masterminded this complex operation? What was the motive behind this act of terrorism?

Twenty-one years later, after a lengthy trial of two Libyan airline employees lasting 18 months at an estimated œ50m cost, not one of these questions has been adequately answered. 

Libyan airline official Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is the only man to have been convicted for the crime which killed 270 people.

Dr Hans Kochler, the official UN international observer at Megrahi's trial, was highly critical of the proceedings. In his report to the UN Secretary-General, he remarked that 'the air of international power politics is present in the whole verdict of the judges. The trial in its entirety was not fair, and was not conducted in an objective manner.'

Millions of people around the world have questioned the verdict against Megrahi  by three Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands, including many of the Scottish relatives of  the victims. The case against Libya, largely garnered, developed and presented by the FBI and the CIA, and which has been readily swallowed by the US media and the public and to a lesser extent in the UK, is treated with contempt and derision in many other parts of the world.

The huge groundswell of doubt about whether justice had been done was largely vindicated by the the 600-page report of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission that ordered the Lockerbie case to be sent back to the Court of Appeal in 2007, after the first Megrahi appeal had been rejected.

The case against Megrahi

This appeal, scheduled to be heard in November 2009, will now never be heard. Amidst a storm of US protest, Megrahi was released from jail on 'compassionate grounds' in August 2009, after medical reports indicated that he probably would not live more than three months. The Libyan had contracted cancer while serving his sentence of life imprisonment in a Scottish jail.

Megrahi, who has always protested his innocence, was apparently pressured to drop his appeal in order to be granted compassionate release and a return to Libya by the Scottish government.

From the beginning the case has been shrouded in mysterious goings-on. Evidence at the scene of the crash went missing. Large numbers of US intelligence agents flew up to Scotland, in addition to the legitimate role of FBI agents investigating the fate of the many US citizens who had been on board the flight.

Pan Am records showed that a number of US diplomats cancelled their bookings on Flight 103 from Frankfurt to London at the last moment. There were 159 empty seats on the plane. The security services had gotten wind of a plot and on 5 December warnings were sent to the US embassy in Helsinki that a bomb would be planted on a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt in the next two weeks. Eighty percent of the staff in American embassies who had reserved seats on Pan Am flights out of Frankfurt cancelled their bookings. The bereaved families are still trying to find out why they never heard about the warning. All they have been told is that the warning 'was a hoax' and it was a mistake posting it.

In 1991 the US drew up an indictment against two Libyan Air officials based in Malta, Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah. The indictment was based on the 'evidence' of a Libyan 'defector', handsomely paid by the CIA. But his account brimming with lies and fantasies  was thrown out by the Scottish judges.

Libya was subjected to Western economic sanctions over Lockerbie designed to force them to hand over the two suspects. The Libyan government,  knowing  a  fair  trial  was  impossible in the UK, accepted the mediation of  Nelson Mandela to arrange for  the  trial  to  be  held  in  a  more neutral atmosphere - in the Netherlands.

The Scottish prosecution  (in cooperation with special lawyers from the US State Department who also sat with the prosecution team) claimed that the Libyan airline officials put the bomb on board an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, as unaccompanied baggage which was then transferred to Pan Am Flight 103 bound for London. Air Malta has always denied this and so also has Pan Am.

The official appeal by Megrahi's lawyers that sadly will now never be heard by the Scottish Appeal Court argues that:

'The Trial Court did not convict the appellant as the principal perpetrator - there was no finding that he was responsible for introducing the IED  [explosives] into the airline baggage system, and thus onto Pan Am 103. He was convicted as an accessory on the basis that he assisted in carrying out part of the common criminal plan to commit the crime. The only act found to have been carried out by the appellant which could amount to participation in the crime was the purchase of clothing which was found to have been in the same suitcase as the IED.'

Most of the case against the Libyan precariously rested on the identified evidence of a lone Maltese  shopkeeper Tony Gauci who told the court that the accused 'resembled' the person who purchased the clothing connected to the bomb. 'Resembled' is a far from positive identification. 

The case before the appeal court concludes that the conviction was based on inference:

'The inference of guilt was ultimately drawn from a second or third layer of inferences. Often different inferences relied upon the same circumstances. The case was not so much wholly circumstantial but wholly inferential. The Trial Court's conclusion rested upon a complex and erroneous process of inferential reasoning.'

Kochler, the UN international observer at the trial, reported that the guilty verdict against Megrahi was 'incomprehensible', given that the three Scottish judges had admitted to  a 'mass of conflicting evidence' which led them to acquit the other defendant Fhimah.

Whose conspiracy?

Although the original investigation at Lockerbie was under the jurisdiction of the Scottish police, by 1991 the centre of operations had effectively shifted across the Atlantic to Langley, the base of the CIA.

The man in day-to-day charge of the Lockerbie investigation there was Vincent Cannistraro. Cannistraro had worked with Oliver North in President Reagan's National Security Council.

The late journalist Paul Foot revealed that Cannistraro had been a leading figure in the movement to support the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola. He had specialised in the US vendetta against Libya and helped to mastermind a covert operation against Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi culminating in the 1986 bombing of Libya (Paul Foot, Lockerbie: The Flight from Justice).

The original suspects in the Lockerbie case were supposed to be a breakaway group of Palestinians. According to the Washington Post, intelligence services had reported that it was 'beyond doubt' that the Lockerbie bomb had been planted by a Palestinian terrorist group led by Ahmed Jibril.

The sudden switch after 1990 to pinning it on Libya had far more to do with US strategic interests in the region and the alignments leading up to the Gulf War, than anything based on new evidence. 

Vital information in the Lockerbie conspiracy has been withheld from the public by the CIA. Applications under the US Freedom of Information Act have repeatedly been thwarted on the grounds of 'national security.' The UK government has followed suit by blocking the disclosure of critical  information  with a notice of 'Public Interest Immunity.'

Still searching for the truth

Many of the UK relatives of the victims who died in the Lockerbie explosion are bitterly disappointed. Many had never been convinced of the US and UK strategy blaming Lockerbie on the so-called Libyan connection. They were looking forward to an appeal that would shed more light on what really happened to Flight 103.

Repeated demands for a full public inquiry had always been rejected out of hand by both Washington and London.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair obstinately turned down the bereaved families' requests for a full public inquiry into the worst mass murder in British history.

Now Megrahi's second appeal, which had promised to reveal fresh evidence that could have blown the case against Libya wide open, is not going to happen anymore.  

Former CIA officer Robert Baer, who had taken part in the original investigation, commented, 'The endgame came down to damage limitation, because the evidence amassed by the appeal is explosive and extremely damning to the system of justice' (cited by journalist  John Pilger  in the New Statesman, 3 September 2009).

Many US and UK intelligence agents and government ministers are secretly delighted that Megrahi's appeal is now dead and buried. They can also ensure that no public inquiry will ever take place.  

That is why Megrahi, still trying to clear his name, has arranged for the evidence that would have been put before the Appeal Court to be posted on the Internet.

In 1990, a group of British relatives, including Martin Cadman, went to the American embassy in London for a meeting with the seven members of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism.

'After we'd had our say,' said Cadman, 'the meeting broke up, and we moved towards the door. As we got there, I found myself talking to two members of the Commission - I think they were Senators. One of them said: "Your government and our government know what happened at Lockerbie. But they are not going to tell you."'                                 

Tom Fawthrop is a journalist and filmmaker covering the developing world.


Iran Air Flight 655

In June 1988 an Airbus civilian airliner was shot down with the loss of all 290 lives on board. This happened six months before Lockerbie. Unlike Lockerbie there is no element of mystery about who brought the plane down. Rockets were fired from the warship USS Vincennes in Iranian territorial waters.

Iran demanded justice. The US response in 1990 was to award the ship's captain the Legion of Merit for 'meritorious conduct'. No apologies have ever been made to the relatives of the victims or to the Iranian airline.

US Vice President (later President) George HW Bush declared in August 1988: 'I will never apologise for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are.'

The fact that the Airbus was Iranian, that people on board were Iranian, and that they were shot down over the Gulf by a US warship meant that there was no court hearing. It has been speculated that the slaughter was intended to push Iran to accept a UN ceasefire in the war with Iraq, in which the US was backing Iraq's Saddam Hussein (yes, the same).

Cubana Flight 455

In 1976 CU 455, a Cuban airliner, exploded in mid-air after taking off from Barbados. The plot was carried out by anti-Castro Cubans and other Latin Americans linked to the CIA's campaign of sabotage directed against Havana. Long harboured by the US, these terrorists are still roaming the streets of Miami immune from prosecution.

*Third World Resurgence No. 228/229, August-September 2009, pp 38-40