Friday, September 05, 2008

The key casualty in Lockerbie — the truth

Sept.5, 2008

The key casualty in Lockerbie — the truth

By PV Vivekanand

THE so-called Lockerbie affair stemming from the bombing of an American passenger plane over a Scottish town in 1988 has always been intriguing because of many unexplained aspects of the case. Now they are revived again with Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's son saying his country only accepted responsibility for the bombing to get sanctions lifted.
Asked if Libya accepts responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Seif Al Islam said in a BBC interview last month: "Yes, we wrote a letter to the Security Council (in 2003) saying we're responsible for the acts of our employees, our people but it doesn't mean that we did it in fact."
He added: "What can you do? Without writing that letter, you will not be able to get rid of the sanction... I admit we played with the words. We had to, we had to, there was no other solution."
Seif Al Islam Qadhafi also states that he believed that Abdelbaset Ali Mohammed Al Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted of the bombing, was not responsible for the blast. The bombing killed a total of 270 people (259 aboard the flight and 11 on the ground) when Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York — a Boeing 747-121 named Clipper Maid of the Seas — blew up over the town of Lockerbie in southern Scotland.
Megrahi is serving a life sentence in Scotland after he was convicted by a tribunal made up of Scottish judges at a US base in the Netherlands in 2001 . His co-accused Khalifa Fhimah was acquitted. Megrahi filed an appeal but it was turned down despite the emergence of new evidence.
Seif Al Islam Qadhafi's statements came a few days before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in Libya in the first such trip by a top US diplomat since 1953. It is anyone guess whether the Lockerbie issue would be raised during the visit although it is unlikely that either of them would want to reopen what, for all technical purposes, is a closed file despite an appeal hearing for Megrahi next year.

Prosecution case

The prosecution case was that the bombing was ordered by the Libyan government and carried out by Megrahi, who served as a Libyan intelligence agent. According to the prosecution, a suitcase containing a radio rigged with explosives was placed aboard a flight originating in Malta and headed for Germany and this eventually ended up in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 and exploded over Lockerbie.
Throughout the trial, confusing and contradictory explanations were heard and few could really make any sense of the prosecution version of the bombing because there were too many loopholes.
A Malta shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as the man who purchased a piece of wrapping cloth that was found in the debris of Flight 103 gave conflicting statements as a witness in the case. The defence argued that Megrahi was somewhere else at the time and date that the shopkeeper said he had sold the cloth to the Libyan.
The shopkeeper was wrong about the date and inaccurate in his description of the purchaser when he first spoke to investigators. It was also established that he was given a photograph of Megrahi before he identified the Libyan as the purchaser. That was highly irregular and not acceptable to any judicial authorities.
However, that did not prevent the trial court from considering his description as the foundation for the charge against Megrahi.
The sighting in Malta of a Middle Eastern man who was under suspicion of planning sabotage in Europe around the time of the Pan Am bombing was disregarded as evidence in the case.

Witness credibility

Much worse was the case of another witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, who claimed to be a defector from the Libyan intelligence service to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Giaka was a complete flop on the witness stand and could not provide any evidence to support the charges. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who was supposed to have strengthened Giaka's testimony was also found to lack credibility.
Since then, it has been found that Giaka was working in a garage of the Libyan intelligence service and had approached the CIA purely driven by monetary considerations.
It emerged after the trial was over that CIA agents were in the courtroom when Giaka was questioned and they conferred with him before he replied. Observers at the trial were quoted as saying that they felt the man was being "coached" on how to answer the questions.
Despite all these gaps and shortcomings in evidence, the tribunal found Megrahi guilty.

Origin of the bomb

The Libyan appealed and the defence produced evidence showing that the cargo holding bay of London's Heathrow was broken in several hours before the Pan Am flight took off. The suggestion was that someone had planted the bomb-laden suitcase in the cargo bay with a New York baggage tag and that it was boarded on Flight 103 as a matter of routine.
Had the appeals court accepted the defence argument, then it would have pulled the rug from under the feet of the prosecution theory that the bomb was placed aboard as unaccompanied air baggage in Valletta, Malta, flown to Frankfurt, Germany, offloaded onto yet another plane to London and then put aboard Flight 103. There would have no case at all.
Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the bombing and became a spokesman for the relatives of British nationals killed in the crash, has repeatedly said that he is convinced that the bomb originated in London.
The alleged Libyan role in the Lockerbie affair was baffling from day one. Experts always questioned by Libya would opt for a complicated Malta-Frankfurt-London-New York route, particularly when there was always room for error, what with the transfer of a baggage containing a bomb between three planes.
The experts point out that placing the bomb on the flight in London would have been much simpler and easier.

Libya a belated suspect

According to Dr. Robert Black, professor of criminal law at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and who worked out the arrangement for trying Megrahi and Fhimah under Scottish law in the Netherlands, says that there was no evidence brought to his attention during the first two and a half years of investigations involved Libya at all.
The first suspect was the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) led by Ahmed Jibril. The theory was that the group staged the bombing at the behest of Iran, which was seeking to avenge the US downing of an Iranian passenger airliner in the Gulf in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war.
A group of PFLP-GC operatives was arrested with bomb-making equipment and radios rigged with bombs and primed to explode at altitude just months before the Lockerbie attack. At that time, at least two US diplomatic missions in Europe had received information that militants were planning to bomb an American passenger airliner.
According to Black, there was obvious pressure to refocus the inquiry on Libya and the pressure was so intense that it could have come only from Washington and London. The campaign included tough international sanctions that were built and tightened to the point of nudging Libya to seek a compromise. That compromise was its acceptance to send Megrahi and Fhimah to the US Camp Zeist in the Netherlands for trial by Scottish judges under Scottish law.

The payoff

In 2003, Libya agreed to "take responsibility" for the bombing and to pay $10 million each to the 270 victims in three stages. The US balked at removing Libya from the list of "state sponsors of terrorism" on the agreed date, and Libya refused to pay the last part ($2 million each) to the families of the victims. Subsequently, the US and Libya worked out another deal under which Tripoli declared that it was abandoning a nuclear weapons programme and revealed details of who had provided the technology and equipment (that led to the exposure of Pakistan's Qadeer Khan as the culprit). Washington removed Libya from the "terrorism list" and reopened its diplomatic mission in Tripoli.
Today's Libya is very much in the good books of the US.
Surely, Seif Al Islam Qadhafi's declaration that Libya had nothing to do with the Pan Am bombing should have sent alarm bells ringing in the same quarters from the pressure to implicate Libya had come in the early 90s. They should indeed be alarmed because the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has concluded Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice. The panel has granted him a second appeal against his conviction and the appeal hearings are expected to start in Scotland early next year. Perhaps that would be a forum for some more of intriguing details to come out in one form or another. However, one thing is absolutely clear: The full truth of the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 which took off from London to New York on Dec.21, 1988 would never be known.