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
What really happened
to Flight 103? Who planted the bomb on board? At which airport was the
bomb inserted into the cargo hold -
Twenty-one years later, after a lengthy trial of two Libyan airline employees lasting 18 months at an estimated 50m 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
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
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
Pan Am records showed
that a number of US diplomats cancelled their bookings on Flight 103
from Frankfurt to
In 1991 the
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
The official appeal
by Megrahi's lawyers that sadly will now never be heard by the
'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.
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
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
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
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
Still searching for the truth
Many of the
Repeated demands for
a full public inquiry had always been rejected out of hand by both
Now Megrahi's second
appeal, which had promised to reveal fresh evidence that could have
blown the case against
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
That is why Megrahi,
still trying to clear his name, has arranged for the evidence that would
have been put before the
In 1990, a group of
British relatives, including Martin Cadman, went to the American embassy
'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.
*Third World Resurgence No. 228/229, August-September 2009, pp 38-40