BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Amid all the bellowing about the release on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, with 281 dead, all current commentary and congressional hearings ignore the hippo in the room, which is that Megrahi is innocent, framed by the U.S. and British security services and originally found guilty because Scottish judges had their arms brutally twisted by Westminster. The conviction was one of the great judicial scandals of the past quarter century.
The original Lockerbie trial took place in 2000, presided over by three Scottish judges who traveled to the Netherlands courthouse, convicting Megrahi and acquitting his colleague, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. In a trenchant early criticism of the verdict, Hans Koechler, a distinguished Austrian philosopher appointed as one of five international observers at the trial in Zeist, Holland, by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a well-merited denunciation of the judges’ bizarre conclusion. “In my opinion,” Koechler said, “there seemed to be considerable political influence on the judges and the verdict.” Furthermore, Koechler queried the active involvement of senior U.S. Justice Department officials as part of the Scottish prosecution team “in a supervisory role.”
In essence, the case was based [a] on the presumption that the bomb timer on the Pan Am plane was from a batch sold by a Swiss firm to Libya, [b] that fragments of clothing retrieved from the crash site and identified as having been in the suitcase that contained the bomb had been bought by the accused Megrahi from a shop in Malta, and [c]that a “secret witness,” Abdulmajid Gialka, a former colleague of the accused pair in the Libyan Airlines office in Malta, would testify that he had observed them either constructing the bomb or at least seen them loading on the plane in Frankfurt.
The prosecution was unable to produce evidence to substantiate any of these points or encourage any confidence in Gialka’s reliability as a witness. The Swiss manufacturer of the timer, Edwin Bollier, testified he had sold timers of a similar type to the East Germans and conceded, under cross-examination by defense lawyers, that he had connections to many intelligence agencies, including not only the Libyans but also the CIA.
By the time of the trial, Gialka had been living under witness protection in the USA. He had received $320,000 from his American hosts and, in the event of conviction of the accused, stood to collect up to $4 million in reward money. He had CIA connections, so the defense lawyers learned, before 1988.
The prosecution’s case absolutely depended on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Megrahi was the man who bought the clothes, traced by police to a Maltese clothes shop. In 19 separate statements to police prior to the trial the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, had failed to make a positive identification of Megrahi. In the witness box, Gauci was asked five times if he recognized anyone in the courtroom. No answer. Finally, the exasperated prosecutor pointed to the dock and asked if the man sitting on the left was the customer in question. Even so, the best that Gauci could do was to mumble that “he resembles him.”
Gauci had also told the police that the man who bought the clothes was 6 feet tall and over 50 years of age. Megrahi is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and in late 1988, he was 36. The clothes were bought either on Nov. 23 or Dec. 7, 1988. On an earlier occasion, when shown a photograph of Mohammed Abu Talb, a Palestinian terrorist who the defense contended was the real bomber, Gauci used almost the same words with more confidence, declaring, according to his brother, that Talb “resembles” the clothes buyer “a lot.” Gauci’s identification of Megrahi at the identity parade just before the opening of the trial was with the words, “not exactly the man I saw in the shop. Ten years ago I saw him, but the man who look [sic] a little bit like is the number 5” [Megrahi].
No less vital to the prosecution’s case was its contention that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 had been loaded as unaccompanied baggage onto an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, flown on to London and thence onto the ill-fated flight to New York. In support of this, prosecutors produced a document from Frankfurt Airport indicating that a bag had gone from the baggage-handling station, at which the Air Malta bags [along with those from other flights] had been unloaded and sent to the handling station for the relevant flight to London. But there was firm evidence from the defense that all the bags on the Air Malta flight were accompanied and collected at the other end.
Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that the lethal suitcase had indeed come from Malta. When Granada TV, in the U.K., broadcast a documentary asserting such a transfer as a fact, Air Malta sued and extracted damages.
The most likely explanation of the judges’ decision to convict Megrahi despite the evidence, or lack of it, must be that either they panicked at the thought of the uproar that would ensue on the U.S. end if they let both the Libyans off, or they were simply given their marching orders by high authority in London. English judges are used to doing their duty in this manner.
Back in 2000, a former CIA official told my brother, Andrew Cockburn, who undertook an investigation of the case for our newsletter, CounterPunch, that he had taken part in the original investigation of the Pan Am 103 bombing. He said that if the original CIA report was ever to be made public, it would provide “damning evidence” that “the Libyans were never directly involved in the Lockerbie bombing.” In fact, the evidence in the CIA’s possession pointed more clearly in the direction of the original suspects in the case, members of a group known as the PFLP-GC, closely linked to Iran.
The Iranians had a clear motive for an attack on an American airliner, following the destruction of an Iranian Airbus over the Persian Gulf carrying 290 passengers, including 66 children, on July 3, 1988.
The initial U.S. and British investigations pointed clearly to a case against the Iranians as having contracted with the Lebanon-based PFLP-GC, or a section thereof, to exact retribution. Two months before Lockerbie, the West Germans arrested members of this group outside Dusseldorf as they were preparing bombs specifically designed to bring down airliners. U.S. intelligence had traced a payment of $500,000 into the account of a professional bomber, Abu Talb, in April 1989. A British journalist showed the Maltese shop owner who sold the clothes found in the bomb-suitcase a photo of Talb, and he declared that the man in the photo “most resembled” the purchaser. At one point, the Scottish police were about to charge Talb, who had since 1989 been serving time in a Swedish jail for a series of bomb attacks in Sweden and Denmark.
In March 1989, however, Margaret Thatcher called President G.H.W. Bush to discuss the case. The two leaders agreed it was important to “cool it” on the Iranian angle since they were in no position to punish the Tehran regime, which had just survived the eight-year war with U.S./U.K.-sponsored Iraq. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, it became more imperative than ever to obscure any suspicion of Iranian complicity in the Lockerbie bombing, given the importance of Iranian assistance in the upcoming war with Saddam Hussein. Thus the perennial “rogue” Muammar Qaddafi was drafted as the suspect of choice, with Megrahi as his instrument. The irony is that today, the U.S. would no doubt be only too eager to finger Iran as the perpetrator.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.