THE LOCKERBIE PATSY
It was the terrorist attack that led to the biggest criminal investigation of our time. When on the 21st of December 1988 a bomb exploded on a Pan Am flight flying from London to New York over the village of Lockerbie Scotland, 270 innocent civilians lost their lives. Two decades after the tragedy Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the crime and dying from prostate cancer, was sent home by Scottish officials on compassionate grounds. Al-Megrahi had served only eight years of his 27 year to life sentence for murder. As the outrage and fallout from the decision to release him continues, questions surround every facet of this emotionally charged and compelling case. Apart from the queries regarding the reason for his release, uncertainty and lingering doubts still surrounds the evidence on which he was convicted in the original case.
After the Lockerbie bombing, years had passed before Al-Megrahi, together with another Libyan, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, was charged for the crime. On the 31st of January 2001, Al-Megrahi was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life, while Fhimah was aquitted. Al-Megrahi appealed his conviction but lost. However, after a series of reports issued by Hans Köchler, the special observer nominated by Kofi Annan, described the decisions of the courts as ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice’, Al-Megrahi applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission for a fresh appeal. In a scathing indictment, Mr Köchler accused the west of double standards in criminal justice in the Lockerbie trial and called for an independent international inquiry into the case. Other independent observers, including the legal architect of the special trial and the spokesperson for the families of the British victims, have declared that Al-Megrahi was wrongfully convicted. In 2007, a Scottish court ruled that Al-Megrahi is entitled to a second appeal because he ‘may have suffered a miscarriage of justice’ and in an article published on the 31st of October 2008 in The Times of London, it was wrtten that Al-Megrahi was the ‘victim of one of the most spectacular and expensive miscarriages of justice in history’.
Many who followed the trial argue that the basis for attaching the blame on this single man was political rather than judicial. They claim Al-Megrahi was a scapegoat for concerned authorites who needed to steer the investigation away from the real perpetrators. Reports that Al-Megrahi has withdrawn his appeal despite compelling evidence in his favour, in exchange for his release lends itself to the assumption that some authority cut a deal with him to drop his appeal in fear of what might be exposed had the appeal been successfull. Had Al-Megrahi been acquitted, there would have been a clamour for an investigation to find another culprit, but the discontinuance of an appeal truncates any further investigation. This and other hypothesis may just be the fantasy of a conspiracy theory, where a coverup is required to neccesitate the commission of some grand design. But another account implies that in light of the global nature of the crime, the political pressure to identify a culprit overrode all reservations about the suspect’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Many analysts believe the case was a weak mixture of suppositions that would have been thrown out in any other court.
During the trial, the prosecution presented evidence that showed Al-Megrahi used a false passport to travel to Malta days before the bombing. In Malta, Al-Magrahi was accused of placing the bomb in a suitcase and checking it in for a New York journey that was destined to start from Malta, transit to Germany and go through London. After the plane arrived in London, the unaccompanied suitcase was transferred onto the Pan Am plane that was destined for New York. It blew up over the village of Lockerbie, Scotland before leaving the shores of the United Kingdom.
The conviction of Al-Megrahi was based largely on a chain of circumstancial evidence. The key witness at the trial was a Maltese shopkeeper named Tony Gauci who picked Al-Megrahi out of a police line up and testified that the accused had bought a shirt in his store two days before the bombing. Scraps of a similar shirt were later found wrapped around a timing device in the wreckage. Apart from the fact that Mr Gauci gave a string of contradictory statements in the 17 interviews he had, there is an inconsistency about the date he says the accused bought the clothing. Also, new evidence suggests Mr Gauci saw a picture of Al Megrahi in a magazine linking him to the bombing four days prior to picking him in the identity parade, making it likely for him to pick out that specific suspect. It was also alledged that the CIA offered Mr Gauci more than £1million to be placed in a witness protection programme, a fact that was never disclosed at trial.
Reviewers of the case continue to present a torrent of elements that casts serious doubts on Al-Megrahi’s guilt, including a secret document provided to the UK by a foreign government and seen only by the prosecution, the discrediting of one of the FBI’s principal forensic experts and claims by high-ranking Scottish police officers that vital evidence was fabricated. Another piece of evidence used to convict Al-Megrahi was the presentation of a circuit board fragment found at the scene that was latter identified as part of an electronic timer. The owner of the company that manufactures this timer claimed that the FBI had offered him millions of dollars to say that the timer fragment was of a type specifically supplied to Libya. Another witness latter swore an affidavit admitting he had lied under oath and admitted stealing and giving a similar device to an official investigating the case. A thorough assesment of the issues show that the major elements of the prosecution’s case were so unsubstantiated that it’s difficult to believe a conviction was able to be sustained in such a high profile case.
But if Al-Megrahi and the Libyan intelligence were truely not guilty, one wonders why their government accepted responsibility. In a letter to the UN, Libya offered to pay $1.7 billion to the families of the victims for the actions of its officials. With the escalating tensions between the west and Libya in the 1980’s, the nation was not short of motive to attack American interests. In 1985, a confrontation in the Mediterranean between the US and Libya left scores of Libiyans dead. This was followed with a bombing at a Berlin disco by a Libyan diplomat, where US service personnel were killed. The American government paid Libya back by launching a bomb at one of Ghadaffi’s palaces, killing his daughter, to which the Libyan leader vowed revenge. Despite such motivations, top officials in Libya have continueally denied responsibility and maintain that their government accepted responsibility solely because it was the only way of ending the sanctions imposed on them. Since the Libyan government accepted responsibility, sanctions against Libya have been lifted and the US has granted Libya immunity from further terrorism-related lawsuits. If the Libyan denials are to be believed, then it may be established that Tripolli offered up Al-Megrahi in an attempt to intigrate itself with the west and satisfy the west’s need to finger someone for the Lockerbie plane disaster. Though very insensitive to the victims, this would explain the jubilations displayed in Libya last week when Al-Megrahi was released.
Notwithstanding these implications against Libya, there were numerous other entities with the motive to attack the US during that period. In the initial investigation, experts suspected a Palestinian terrorist group backed by Iran or Syria. But the investigators were more convinced with the involvement of Iran. Five months before the Lockerbie air disaster, a U.S. warship accidently shot down an Iranian Airbus in the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 aboard. Although the American government appologised for the act, many believe that Iran had not accepted the appologies and the Islamic Revolution had destroyed the plane in retaliation. However, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, having complications with Syria or Iran would not have been in the best interest of America because apart from the fact that Iran was a well-armed nation of 70 million and Syria was a key factor to Arab-Israeli peace, the United States did not need more regional enemies in the run up to the first Gulf war.
The pain and suffering of the bereaved family members will never go away. When such a senseless loss is caused intentionally, the desire for justice comes naturally. But true justice is not served by yielding to the propensity for unquestioning condemnation despite compelling evidence to the contrary. If Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi is not the true culprit, then true justice requires that he be sent home to his wife and five children to die. If on the other hand he planted the bomb on the Pan Am Flight 103, then justice for the victims can only come in the hereafter as Al-Megrahi embarks on his final journey of life.
After he was arrested for the assassination of President John.F.Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald repeatedly claimed that he was the sacrificial lamb; “I am just a patsy! I am just a patsy!” he exclaimed. Whether he was or not, history has condemned his memory forever. Only God and those involved know if Al-Megrahi was the lone bomb planter or a co-conspirator. But whatever he was, the full truth is now unlikely to ever be revealed. So while we wait and watch history describes Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi as the Lockerbie bomber, from all indications, he is also the Lockerbie Patsy!
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