Lockerbie bombing: The search for the truth
In the early afternoon of May 20, the only person ever convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie died at home in Libya. Abdelbaset Al Megrahi had been released from a UK prison on compassionate grounds in August 2009 after being found guilty of the December 21, 1988 terrorist atrocity, which killed all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 others on the ground.
Megrahi, who had been suffering from prostate cancer and was given only three months to live, was released by Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, under controversial circumstances.
He arrived home to a hero's welcome at Tripoli airport after serving just eight years of a minimum 27-year sentence.
The Libyan, whose co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted at trial, went on to live for two years and nine months, leading many to question the true extent of his illness. But, while seven months may have elapsed since Megrahi's death, and 24 years since the attack itself, many individuals are now convinced of the late Libyan's innocence.
Jim Swire, whose daughter, Flora, died on Flight 103, Robert Forrester, secretary of the Justice for Megrahi (JFM) campaign and John Ashton, author of Megrahi: You Are My Jury, all believe that the Lockerbie dead were not the only casualties that cold December evening when, 38 minutes into its transatlantic flight from London Heathrow, the Clipper Maid of the Seas passenger jet exploded. Swire, Forrester and Ashton are all pushing for Megrahi's conviction to be quashed in the belief that the evidence used to try the Libyan in 2001 can be disproved.
The timer fragment used to detonate the bomb, said to have been found at the Lockerbie crash site and which the prosecution argued had been planted in a suitcase by Megrahi at Malta airport, is one such questionable item of evidence.
According to Ashton, the fragment, made of pure tin, could not have come from any product sold by the Swiss company Mebo in Libya, because it used tin-lead alloy at that time.
He bases his claims on two assertions: a sworn affidavit from the production manager of the firm that made the Mebo timer's circuit boards and expert opinion that refuted remarks made by two prosecution witnesses that the heat from the explosion could have burnt away the lead from the Lockerbie fragment, leaving just tin residue.
"The experts we spoke to did experiments, which disproved this supposition," says Ashton, who worked alongside Megrahi's legal team for three years as a researcher and claims that notes by a prosecution forensics expert, during his original examination of the circuit board fragment in 1991, reveal he was aware of a difference in the composition of the circuit board, but that his notes, which were handed to police on November 8, 1999, were not disclosed to Megrahi's defence until 10 years later.
"So, we then had a very, very startling conclusion which was that the fragment was not from one of the circuit boards sold to Libya. That really destroys the case. The fragment was what tied Megrahi in as he had an association with Mebo, and which was the golden thread that tied [him] to Lockerbie. When you removed that you really had no case."
Swire believes that Ashton's evidence "blows the Malta-Megrahi story … out of the water" and has always harboured deep reservations that a device of this kind "would have been used in such a way that it would only clear Heathrow by 38 minutes".
This, contends Swire, is because such a detonation time fitted perfectly with the pressure-trigger bombing devices used by the Syrian and Iranian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC). Indeed, not only were the PFLP-GC the original prime suspects, but they were also incriminated by group member Mobdi Goben, in a lengthy deathbed confession.
For Swire, the evidence of the so-called "Heathrow break-in" - which took place just 16 hours before the bombing at a padlocked rubber door that gave access from landside to airside and down towards the airport's baggage area - was also mishandled.
It is his contention that Scottish police, who were in possession of the full facts surrounding the incident at Heathrow by February 1989 but didn't pass on details to the Crown Office in their case against Megrahi in 1991 - doing so only eight years later when they merely submitted unreferenced details of the break-in along with 14,000 other witness statements - "decided off their own bat that there was no evidence for anyone else being involved in the bombing and to suppress the Heathrow evidence in its entirety".
"The Crown Office, before the case started in court, knew perfectly well that the defence were going to lead [on] incrimination and were going to allege that the PFLP-GC had done this with one of their devices," says Swire, who claims that the appearance of the Lockerbie timer fragment was the result of "a major, major conspiracy of some unknown party to pervert the course of justice".
"In order to use a PFLP-GC device it would have to have been introduced at Heathrow or had to be treated by the terrorists in some way at Heathrow in order to activate it. Why? Because if you flew it in from Frankfurt it would have blown up on the way - on the feeder flight, Pan Am 103A. In that scenario, the evidence of the break-in ought to have been a crucial defence plank, but it wasn't because the defence didn't know about it."
With such assertions in mind, Forrester, on behalf of the JFM committee - which includes a Queen's Counsel, the parish priest in Lockerbie at the time of the disaster and a retired police superintendent, as well as Swire - wrote to Scotland's justice secretary on September 13, 2012, alleging six counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice pertaining to members of the Scottish police, the Crown and other involved parties.
But, as Forrester admits, "major obstacles" exist in reaching JFM's goal of seeking justice for the 270 victims. This, despite a report from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) - a non-departmental public body funded by the Scottish government - which upheld six grounds on which Megrahi could have suffered a miscarriage of justice.
Indeed, viable avenues to expose Megrahi's conviction to the above claims - and others that have surfaced - appear doom-laden. An appeal from the Megrahi family, which seems unlikely due to the present political climate in Libya, or, potentially, an appeal from the Lockerbie bereaved, could both be scuppered by a Scottish Parliament ruling, which, says Forrester, "allows the judiciary to reject applications for appeal that are submitted to it by the SCCRC".
A Scottish government- launched independent inquiry, for which JFM has petitioned hard since 2010, provides another potential opening, but Salmond has, thus far, remained steadfastly opposed to such a move. Even so, JFM remains undeterred and focused on what Ashton contends as the biggest miscarriage of justice in the modern age.
"This was the biggest criminal investigation in British history - and the biggest mass murder - but the real hidden thing in this and the real scandal was that not only was the wrong man convicted, but so too was the nation of Libya, because as a result of these indictments Libya was subjected to 12 years of sanctions … So, here you have an entire nation punished on the basis of evidence that was at best shaky and at worst fabricated."
Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.