PAN AM BOMBING
A scapegoat and convenient untruth
By Gwynne Dyer
ABDEL Basset al-Megrahi was an intelligence agent. Since he worked for the Libyan government, he probably did some bad things. But he probably did not do the specific bad thing for which he was sentenced to 27 years in prison in Scotland.
He served only eight years. He was released on compassionate grounds last Thursday by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and flew home to Libya. He is dying of cancer, but his release outraged the Americans whose relatives died aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. They believe that Megrahi is a mass murderer who should die in jail - but that is not necessarily so.
There were also British victims of the attack, and almost none of their relatives think that Megrahi should have been in jail at all. As their spokesman Jim Swire put it: 'I don't believe for a moment that this man was involved (in the bombing).'
The prime suspect
BACK in 1988-89, Western intelligence services saw the bombing of Pan Am 103 as an act of revenge. The US warship Vincennes had shot down an Iranian Airbus five months before, killing all 290 passengers, and the Iranians were getting even. (The United States was then secretly backing Saddam Hussein's war against Iran, and the Vincennes, operating illegally in Iranian territorial waters, shot down the airliner thinking that it was an Iranian fighter.)
There was some evidence for this 'Iranian revenge' theory. In 1989, German police found the same kind of bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 in a house in Frankfurt used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. The PFLP-GC was based in Syria, and Syria and Iran were allies, so maybe...
BUT then in 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Washington needed Arab countries like Syria to join the war against Saddam so that the liberation of Kuwait looked like a truly international effort. Syria's price for sending troops was removal from America's most-wanted list. Suddenly Syria was no longer the prime suspect in the Pan Am case - and if Syria was out, so was Iran.
But more Americans died on Pan Am 103 than in any other terrorist attack before Sept 11. Somebody had to take the fall. Libya was the obvious candidate because it had supported various terrorist attacks in the past.
Soon new evidence began to appear. It pointed to Megrahi, who had been working as a security officer for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta in 1988. A Maltese shopkeeper identified him as the man who bought children's clothing like that found in the suitcase that contained the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103.
It was pretty flimsy evidence, but Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was desperate to end the Western trade embargo against his country. He never admitted blame in the Pan Am affair, but he handed Megrahi and a colleague over for trial in a Western court.
The kangaroo court
MEGRAHI'S trial took place in 2001. His colleague was freed, but he was jailed for 27 years - in Scotland, because Pan Am 103 came down in Lockerbie. As time passed, however, the case began to unravel.
The Maltese shopkeeper who had identified Megrahi, Mr Tony Gauci, turned out to be living in Australia, supported by several million dollars that the Americans had paid him for his evidence.
The allegation that the timer for the bomb had been supplied to Libya by the Swiss manufacturer Mebo turned out to be false. The owner of Mebo, Mr Edwin Bollier, revealed that he had turned down an offer of US$4 million from the FBI in 1991 to testify that he had sold his MST-13 timers to Libya.
One of Mr Bollier's former employees, Mr Ulrich Lumpert, did testify at Megrahi's trial that MST-13 timers had been supplied to Libya - but in 2007, he admitted that he had lied at the trial.
And this year, it was revealed that Pan Am's baggage area at London's Heathrow airport was broken into 17 hours before Pan Am 103 took off on its last flight. (The police knew that 12 years ago, but kept it secret at Megrahi's trial.) The theory that the fatal bag was put on a feeder flight from Malta became even less likely.
All of which explains why the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced in 2007 that it would refer Megrahi's case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh because he 'may have suffered a miscarriage of justice'.
THE Review Commission's decision caused a crisis, because a new court hearing would reveal how shoddy the evidence at the first one was. Happily for London and Washington, Megrahi was now dying of cancer, so a deal was possible. He would give up his plea for a retrial, no dirty linen about the original trial would be aired in public, and he would be set free.
A miserable story, but hardly a unique one. A man who was probably innocent of the charges against him, a loyal servant of the Libyan state who was framed by the West and hung out to dry by his own government, has been sent home to die.
The writer is a London-based independent journalist.
Aug 26, 2009
Bomber fiasco puts Brown in a tight spot
British PM faces public's ire and an unhappy Obama administration
By Jonathan Eyal
LONDON: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing a growing public outcry over the circumstances which led to the early release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the destruction of a United States airliner which blew up over Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people.
London claims that the decision to release Megrahi only eight years into his sentence was taken by Scotland's semi-autonomous administration.
Yet everything points to a far murkier picture: the Megrahi affair is a classic British story of half-truths and speculations, mixed with sheer incompetence.
The Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill freed Megrahi because he has terminal cancer. Such 'compassionate' releases are not unique. But they are not automatic either; Scotland could have held the Libyan until his death.
That was precisely what the Americans 'going back literally over months' and 'at the highest levels' demanded, as Mr Philip Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, indignantly put it.
But, for reasons which remain mysterious, neither London nor Edinburgh - the seat of the Scottish government - heeded the appeals.
One possible explanation for this behaviour is that the Scots wanted to be rid of the prisoner because they doubted his guilt. However, this explanation does not bear scrutiny. Out of the 48 of Megrahi's appeal arguments, no less than 45 had already been dismissed; the criminal case against him was strong.
And London's commitment to keeping him behind bars had been in doubt for years. For, although officials fervently deny it, his release was undoubtedly connected to cloak-and-dagger arrangements reached years ago.
Earlier this decade, Britain's security services made a sensational discovery: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was acquiring a nuclear bomb.
The British presented Mr Gaddafi with a straight choice: renounce nuclear aspirations in return for international respectability or risk total isolation. He chose to give up the bomb, and Britain's spies scored one of their biggest triumphs.
As part of the deal normalising relations, Libya admitted that it was behind the destruction of the US airliner, paid hefty compensation to the victims' families and handed over Megrahi for trial.
Whether there was a formal British promise to release Megrahi soon after his conviction is unknown. But what followed is beyond dispute.
London concluded a surprising deal with Libya, under which Libyan citizens in British jails could serve the remainder of their sentences at home. Many British MPs, as well as Edinburgh, demanded that Megrahi should be explicitly excluded from this pact. But London refused.
It seems clear that London saw this arrangement as a clever solution: the Libyans would have got their man back, but London could have plausibly claimed that Megrahi's jail sentence continued, albeit in another country.
And the reason for these legal contortions is equally obvious: Britain's attempt to share in Libya's huge natural gas reserves remained blocked as long as Megrahi was in jail.
The snag was that the carefully laid British plans to free Megrahi without appearing to be doing so collapsed once he was diagnosed as terminally ill, therefore qualifying for unconditional release.
It is now known that Mr MacAskill had asked the Foreign Office in London whether there were any legal impediments to Megrahi's release; he was told that there was none. Evidently, nothing should stand in the way of business.
Mr Brown also claimed that he did not discuss the issue with the Libyans. But it subsequently emerged that he did, and at some length, on the sidelines of the recent Group of Eight summit in Italy.
And, as the situation reached crisis point, incompetence replaced skulduggery. Britain's diplomats failed to appreciate the anger which their move created in the US, and scrambled to contain the damage only when it was too late.
Meanwhile, Mr Brown remained silent, ostensibly because the decision had nothing to do with him. But, amusingly, he did break his silence to congratulate the English cricket team on an important victory; cricket apparently deserves more attention than transatlantic relations.
To add to the surreal atmosphere, Mr Brown's office now claims that Megrahi's release has not 'given succour to terrorists'. Unsurprisingly, the US begs to differ: 'outrageous and disgusting' is the White House's verdict on the affair.
The US is unlikely to scale down its military cooperation with Britain; London's contributions to Afghanistan, Iran and other crises remain important.
But the Obama administration may well conclude that there is little point in paying too much attention to Mr Brown, who seems likely to be swept from power by the impending general election.
Either way, many observers in London consider this as one of the more disgraceful episodes in Britain's recent history. And the embarrassment will continue: Megrahi, now safely back home, is about to publish his 'memoirs'.