lockerbie pan-am 248.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The conviction of Libyan intelligence officer Abdelsbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988 - the deadliest terrorist attack ever mounted in the UK - will be overturned in an appeals process that begins with a procedural hearing on Thursday and gets under way in earnest next year, several leading experts closely connected to the case have told The Jerusalem Post.
Megrahi, who was jailed for murder in 2001, is the only man ever convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, in which 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground, lost their lives. A second Libyan defendant, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, was acquitted. Libya, which was held responsible for the attack, has paid compensation to victims' families, but never formally accepted responsibility.
Megrahi, who has always denied involvement, lost an appeal against his conviction in 2002, and was only given leave to mount a second appeal in June. A Scottish legal review commission found six potential grounds for a miscarriage of justice, including flaws in the process by which he was identified and, reportedly, the non-disclosure of a classified report on the timer purportedly used in the bomb. The commission referred the case back to the Scottish courts.
The overturning of Megrahi's conviction could revive the bombing investigators' original theory, widely believed by many of those close to the case, that Lockerbie was not a Libyan plot at all, but was, rather, carried out by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, on behalf of Iran.
Among the leading figures who publicly voiced this assertion was then trade minister Ariel Sharon, who told a press conference in Madrid seven weeks after the bombing, "Israel believes it was Ahmed Jibril."
Investigators initially stated that the Pan Am jumbo jet, which was blown up 38 minutes into its journey from London to New York, was destroyed by a device featuring an air pressure switch similar to several devices seized by German police when they arrested a PFLP-GC cell a few weeks before the bombing. But the subsequent purported linking of Megrahi to items in the suitcase containing the bomb, and the discovery at the crash site of a fragment of a different timing device, purportedly traced to Libya, saw the investigation change course dramatically. The identification of Megrahi - by a Maltese shopkeeper named Tony Gauci, who testified to having sold Megrahi items found in the suitcase - and the provenance of the "Libyan" timer have been consistently disputed by the defense.
In separate telephone interviews in the last few days, the spokesman for the Lockerbie victims' families, the UN's observer on the case and the Scottish law professor who formulated the legal framework under which Megrahi was tried have all told the Post they are convinced the conviction will be overturned. The appeals process begins on Thursday with a procedural hearing, at which a timetable will likely be set for the full appeal next year. Megrahi is not expected to attend Thursday's hearing.
Families' spokesman Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the bombing, said he was certain that the new evidence would see Megrahi released, but that he feared it would be "convenient" for the appeals court to free the Libyan on "some semi-technical" count - "something along the lines of the prosecution having failed to give the defense access to all the evidence" - without the full truth ever coming out.
Swire said he feared this full truth included "the deliberate fabrication of evidence" such as the timer fragment, in order to frame Megrahi and render Libya as the "perfect scapegoat" for Lockerbie.
Hans Koechler, appointed as an "international observer" to the trial by the UN Security Council on the nomination of then secretary-general Kofi Annan, told the Post: "They'll cancel the judgement. The appeal court will decide that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, because of the unreliability of Tony Gauci's evidence."
And Robert Black, the emeritus professor of law at the University of Edinburgh who formulated the complex legal mechanism that facilitated the original trial before Scottish judges in the Netherlands, said the same thing. "Megrahi will go free. He should never have been convicted. The evidence does not show him to have had anything to do with [the Lockerbie bombing]."
Libya's motivation in ordering the attack is said to have included a desire for revenge on the part of Col. Gaddafi for a series of confrontations with the US, including a military strike in 1986 in which his daughter was killed.
Koechler did not posit an alternative theory, but Swire and Black both said they were convinced that the PFLP-GC was to blame, and that it carried out the attack on behalf of Iran.
"The Iranians had told the world that they would seek revenge for the Vincennes attack," said Swire, a reference to the shooting down by the US Navy's guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes of an Iran Air civilian flight in July 1988, in which 290 passengers and crew were killed. Iran said the attack was deliberate; the US said it had mistaken the plane for a fighter jet.
The Iranians "had colluded in the past with the PFLP-GC under Jibril, and now they colluded again," said Swire, adding: "The PFLP-GC was the 'sensible choice' because, as has been established, it maintained a workshop on the outskirts of Damascus that manufactured timing devices" involving an air-pressure switch for bombs to detonate aboard airplanes.
Both Swire and Black said the case had been skewed because of the timing of the Lockerbie investigation, which played out as the first Gulf War was developing. The US-led coalition, gearing up to take on Saddam Hussein, needed Syria to stay out of the conflict, said Swire, and also did not want to face "hordes of Iranian foot soldiers swarming across the border to attack it. So it was not worth irritating Iran and Syria."
Added Black: "The PFLP-GC was funded and protected by Syria... And with the unfolding of Operation Desert Storm... the coalition needed at least the benevolent neutrality of Syria." Black added: "It was never anticipated that Libya would surrender the two suspects for trial. The thinking was, 'We'll just generally blame the Libyans.'"
Black said he was scandalized by the cover-up. It was terrible that "national governments would get up to this kind of thing," he said. But as a "parochial Scottish lawyer," he went on, he was most pained "that the criminal justice system in my country lent itself to this."
Koechler is calling for a new investigation into the bombing, without the involvement of the US, UK or Libya, but he said he feared "it will not happen."