There has been a lot written about Scotland’s decision to release al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie and subsequently released, to the delight of Tripoli, on humanitarian grounds because he is in the terminal stages of cancer. Some has looked at the matter from a different angle (Scottish-English relations, rule of law versus politics), but most of it has been full of boilerplate outrage and not particularly interesting.
What most of this coverage has in common, though, is the assumption that al-Megrahi is guilty. No one seems to be talking at all about the fact that he had been granted an appeal, because last year, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), a public body funded by the Scottish Government Criminal Justice Directorate, found that al-Megrahi may have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. The only two accounts of the affair I’ve seen that take this into consideration have been by Hugh Miles and Robert Fisk.
It’s no secret the Libyans didn’t want their man to die in prison. They made it clear to the UK authorities that if he did, relations between the two nations would be badly damaged, which would place the $900 million joint venture between BP and the Libya Investment Corporation in jeopardy.
Despite deep mutual mistrust, the two sides managed to fix up an uneasy quid pro quo in negotiations behind closed doors. The convicted mass-murderer would be released on compassionate grounds if he promised to drop his appeal. Plainly the authorities were not too bothered about concealing the fact that a deal was done: the two announcements came almost simultaneously.
This suits both sides: the Libyans get Megrahi back while the British authorities are spared the potential fiasco of his being acquitted, which would inevitably lead to calls for a public inquiry into Lockerbie, not to mention the possibility of having to give Gaddafi back the $2.7 billion he paid in compensation.
Fisk gives us another view, managing to remind us, as he is wont to do, that he was around when the whole thing went down in the first place:
It was Megrahi’s decision – not that of his lawyers – to abandon the appeal that might have told us the truth about Lockerbie. The British would far rather he return to the land of the man who wrote The Green Book on the future of the world (the author, a certain Col Muammar Gaddafi, also wrote Escape to Hell and Other Stories) than withstand the typhoon of information that an appeal would have revealed.
…Megrahi’s lawyers had delved deeply into his case – which rested on the word of a Maltese tailor who had already seen a picture of Megrahi (unrevealed to us at the time) so he could identify him in court – and uncovered some remarkable evidence from the German police.
… [T]hey went a long way towards establishing that a Lebanese who had been killed in the Lockerbie bombing was steered to Frankfurt airport by known Lebanese militants and the bag that contained the bomb was actually put on to the baggage carousel for checking in by this passenger’s Lebanese handler, who had taken him to the airport, and had looked after him in Germany before the flight.
I have read all the interviews which the German police conducted with their suspects. They are devastating. There clearly was a Lebanese connection. And there probably was a Palestinian connection. How can I forget a press conference in Beirut held by the head of the pro-Syrian “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” [sic] (they were known, then, as the “Lockerbie boys”) in which their leader, Ahmed Jibril, suddenly blurted out: “I’m not responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. They are trying to get me with a kangaroo court.”
Yet there was no court at the time. Only journalists – with MI6 and the CIA contacts – had pointed the finger at Jibril’s rogues. It was Iran’s revenge, they said, for the shooting down of a perfectly innocent Iranian passenger jet by the captain of the American warship Vincennes a few months earlier. I still happen to believe this is close to the truth.
But the moment Syria sent its tanks to defend Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, all the MI6 truth-telling turned into a claptrap of nonsense about Col Gaddafi.
It should be noted, though, that Fisk is mixing up his Palestinian factions. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was George Habash’s group, while Ahmad Jibril’s outfit, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) broke away from Habash in 1968. (In all fairness, though, t’s sometimes confusing to wade through the various splinter groups and their acronyms, or as the Monty Python boys would call them: splitters.)
So it’s worth taking a look at the SCCRC’s press release (the full report isn’t publicly available), which states:
This has been a difficult case to deal with. The Commission’s enquiry team have worked tirelessly for over three years. Some of what we have discovered may imply innocence; some of what we have discovered may imply guilt. However, such matters are for a court to decide. The Commission is of the view, based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court that the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice. The place for that matter to be determined is in the appeal court, to which we now refer the case.
Of course, this is not to say that al-Megrahi is innocent, just that there were reasonable and sufficient grounds for him to appeal the conviction. But instead of a legal appeal that would have brought who knows what new evidence to light, a deal was struck between London and Tripoli. Did the Libyans have anything to do with Lockerbie? Were they framed to keep Damascus’s support for the 1991 invasion of Iraq? Was it a hit that was outsourced by Iran to the PFLP-GC through Damascus to avenge the Iranian civilian carrier that had been downed by the US?
An appeal could have answered these questions. Again, according to Miles:
If al-Megrahi is exonerated, many tricky questions will resurface, not least what to do about the $2.7 billion compensation paid by Libya to the relatives of the victims of the bombing. And then, of course, there is the question of who really bombed Flight 103.
In the first three years following the bombing, before a shred of evidence had been produced to incriminate Libya, the Dumfries and Galloway police, the FBI and several other intelligence services around the world all shared the belief that the Lockerbie bombers belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), a Palestinian rejectionist organisation backed by Iran. The PFLP-GC is headed by Ahmed Jibril, a former Syrian army captain; its headquarters are in Damascus and it is closely allied with the Syrian president and other senior Syrian officials. In the 1970s and 1980s the PFLP-GC carried out a number of raids against Israel, including a novel hang-glider assault launched from inside Lebanon. Lawyers, intelligence services and diplomats around the world continue to suspect that Jibril – who has even boasted that he is responsible – was behind Lockerbie.
The case against Jibril and his gang is well established. It runs like this: in July 1988, five months before the Lockerbie bombing, a US naval commander aboard USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian airbus, apparently mistaking it for an attacker. On board Iran Air Flight 655 were 270 pilgrims en route to Mecca. Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran. The suggestion is that the PFLP-GC was commissioned to undertake a retaliatory bombing.
… Other evidence has emerged showing that the bomb could have been placed on the plane at Frankfurt airport, a possibility that the prosecution in al-Megrahi’s trial consistently ruled out (their case depended on the suitcase containing the bomb having been transferred from a connecting flight from Malta). Most significantly, German federal police have provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.
The decision to steer the investigation away from the PFLP-GC and in the direction of Libya came in the run-up to the first Gulf War, as America was looking to rally a coalition to liberate Kuwait and was calling for support from Iran and Syria. Syria subsequently joined the UN forces. Quietly, the evidence incriminating Jibril, so painstakingly sifted from the debris, was binned.
Now though, it seems we’ll never know. So in a sense, all of the outraged coverage of the release is correct. We should be outraged. But we should be outraged, because the truth is being sidestepped for political expediency by everyone involved.