New book investigates Lockerbie frame up

May 26, 2012
Wreckage of the Lockerbie bombing.

Megrahi: You are My Jury ― The Lockerbie Evidence
John Ashton
Birlinn 2012
£14.99, 497 pages

Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town Lockerbie in December 1988 and is usually described in the mainstream media as “the Lockerbie bomber”.

Readers familiar with Paul Foot’s series of penetrating articles on Lockerbie in Private Eye will already be familiar with the potentially problematic nature of Megrahi’s trial and conviction. But this book brings the story up to date.

In 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) gave Megrahi leave to mount a second appeal against his conviction. Megrahi ― who has always protested his innocence ― fully intended to lodge a second appeal, but in 2008 was diagnosed with terminal prostrate cancer.

In August 2009, he dropped his planned appeal before being released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government.

This book ― written by a researcher who worked with Megrahi’s legal team from 2006 to '09 ― includes vital new details relating to Megrahi’s conviction. It also includes, in sometimes extensive passages printed in italics, Megrahi’s first-hand account of many of the events surrounding the case.

(Ashton and Megrahi are listed as co-owners of the book’s copyright on the copyright page).

According to the prosecution at the original trial, the Lockerbie bomb ― concealed in a Toshiba cassette player ― was placed on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt on the day of the bombing. It was then transferred onto a feeder flight from Frankfurt to London Heathrow, before being transferred on to Pan Am 103.

Forensic evidence suggested the bomb was carried in a suitcase containing clothes bought in a shop in Malta on December 7, and Megrahi was identified as the man who bought the clothes by the shop owner, Tony Gauci.

Moreover, fragments of a timer found in the wreckage of Pan Am 103 were claimed to be similar to a batch of timers sold to Libya by Edwin Bollier, the co-owner of the Swiss company MEBO, from whom Megrahi had rented office space.

Ashton said there is no compelling evidence the bomb got on to Pan Am 103 via the Air Malta flight ― he describes that claim as “riddled with holes”. The available evidence points towards November 23 as the date the clothes were bought in Malta (a date on which Megrahi was not on the island).

Moreover, although there is no suggestion that Gauci wasn’t trying to tell the truth, his testimony varied so much over the years between the bombing and the trial that it is questionable how accurate a guide he provides to the identity of the buyer of the clothes in late 1988.

Ashton says there is a mass of circumstantial evidence suggesting the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by a Palestinian terrorist group hired by the Iranian government. Iran was seeking revenge for the downing of an Iranian passenger plane carrying 290 passengers by the US navy in July 1988.

Attention switched to Libya because the US needed better relations with Iran and Syria in the run-up to the first Gulf War in 1991.

Although the 2001 prosecution case has been questioned many times, Ashton takes it apart again with clinical precision and a formidable level of detail.

The full version of the SCCRC “statement of reasons” giving Megrahi leave to mount a second appeal has only very recently entered the public domain (it was published online on March 25 by the Sunday Herald).

This means Ashton’s comments on it are likely to be of interest even to those familiar with the earlier details of Megrahi’s original trial and conviction.

Ashton quotes the SCCRC statement as saying: “In the absence of a reasonable foundation for the date of purchase accepted by the Trial court, and bearing in mind the problems with Mr Gauci’s identification of the applicant, the Commission is of the view that no reasonable Trial Court could have drawn the conclusion that [Megrahi] was the purchaser.”

This is followed by what Ashton terms the coup de grace: “Based on these conclusions the Commission is of the view that the verdict in the case is at least arguably one which no reasonable court, properly directed, could have returned.”

Megrahi gives his account of the events leading to his release in August 2009. With a prognosis of terminal cancer, Megrahi was eligible for release on compassionate grounds, and was visited in Greenock Prison by the Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill (who is described by Megrahi as “strong-minded yet gentle”).

MacAskill met officials from the Libyan embassy days later. Megrahi said the Libyan charge d’affaires related that MacAskill had informed him privately “it would be easier to grant compassionate leave if I dropped my appeal”. MacAskill strongly denies this.

Although desperate to continue the fight to clear his name, with the death sentence of terminal cancer hanging over him, Megrahi decided to drop the appeal rather than risk losing a final chance to die among his family and friends in Libya.

This is followed by the most provocative of the book’s claims. Ashton writes: “By a horrible irony Abdelbaset’s [Al-Meghri] decision coincided with the destruction of the last major plank of the Crown case.”

As noted above, the prosecution case depended in part on forensic evidence that suggested that a fragment of a timer found at the crash site was similar to timers supplied by the firm MEBO to Libya.

Ashton says, in reviewing the paperwork in the course of preparing for the second appeal, Megrahi’s legal team discovered a key difference: the coating on the fragment from the crash site was composed of pure tin, whereas the timers sold to Libya had coatings composed of an alloy of tin and lead.

The experts consulted by the defence suggested a lead and tin alloy could not have changed to tin because of the explosion, undermining the claim that the Lockerbie timer was from the batch of timers sold by MEBO to Libya.

Ashton says this potentially crucial difference had been noted by Allen Feraday, one of the scientists who led the forensic investigation of the Lockerbie debris in 1991, but the document containing this was not disclosed by the Crown until just before Megrahi dropped his second appeal in 2009.

He writes: “Had these documents been disclosed to the defence team, they would have provided the basis for a vigorous cross-examination of Feraday.”

Ashton concludes: “The strongest remaining element of the case against [Megrahi] was destroyed and with it the case against his country.”

The SCCRC “statement of reasons” asserts, “The Commission considers that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred in [Megrahi’s] case”.

Writing in 2001, the United Nations-nominated international observer at the original trial Dr Hans Kochler wrote that the trial “seen in its entirety, was not fair and was not conducted in an objective manner”.

The March 11 Independent on Sunday reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned Ashton’s book as “a disgrace”. Green Left Weekly readers may wish to read it for themselves and form their own view of the matter.

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