Lockerbie: 25 years of geopolitics over truth

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It has now been a quarter-century since Pan Am 103 exploded in the air and dropped onto the quiet town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 villagers.  No credible claim of responsibility was ever made, and the saga of the search for the guilty parties, still continues with various twists and turns.  A Libyan was convicted of the mass murder, but according to an Al Jazeera documentary that aired in the US last week, he was innocent.  Relying in part on disclosures made by a recent defector from the Iranian intelligence service, Abolghassem Mesbahi, the documentary concludes that Iran, Syria, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC, headquartered in Damascus), were to blame.

Ordinarily, the “revelations” of an intelligence service defector that conveniently accuse the enemies du jour of some spectacular crime should be treated with skepticism, if not downright contempt.  But this is no ordinary case.  In fact, the new documentary’s theory was the original focus of British and U.S. investigators for nearly two years following the air disaster.  Six months before Lockerbie, a U.S. Navy ship engaging in unnecessarily provocative games in the Persian Gulf had mistaken an Iranian civilian airliner as a threatening military response and shot it down, killing all 290 aboard.  Iran had vowed revenge, and was believed to have recruited the “Syrian-sponsored” PFLP group to carry out the retaliatory attack against the Pan Am jet.  Mohammed Abu Talb, a Palestinian arrested in Sweden shortly after Lockerbie and charged with several other bombings, was suspected of being one of the principals who had the bomb placed on board the plane.

While today, the US/UK would find this trifecta of Iran, Syria, and a Palestinian group to be an irresistible axis of evil to accuse of an act of terrorism, those were different times.  The truly suspicious shift in blame was made not today but in 1990, when the investigation against Syria and Iran became undesirable to pursue.  In August of that year, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and President George H.W. Bush was trying to cobble together a coalition, first to protect Saudi Arabia from further Iraqi incursion, and then to drive Iraq from Kuwait.  Bush hoped to have some Arab countries join, and Syria was eager to do so.  It didn’t look good to have an official state sponsor of terror on board, so any notion of a Syrian role in the Lockerbie bombing was abruptly abandoned without any explanation.  Iran also became an inconvenient culprit, as it was part and parcel of the Syria conspiracy, and also was a sworn enemy of Iraq (which then held the unofficial title of Most Evil Country on Earth), with whom it had just fought a brutal war for nearly a decade.

Of course, a new culprit had to be found, and Libya fit the bill perfectly.  Public attention first turned to Libya around October, 1990.  Not surprisingly, there also was brief mention of Iraq as a possible culprit.  It took a little while for official disinterest in Syria to filter down to the media.  In November, 1990, the NY Times still pronounced that “Syria is home to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is believed to have been deeply involved in the bombing of a Pan American World Airways jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, two years ago with the loss of 270 lives.”

But soon, the focus was entirely on Libya.  By the end of 1991, two Libyans, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, had been indicted and the UK/US were demanding their extradition for trial.  When Libya balked at turning over the suspects, sanctions already imposed were tightened. The standoff continued for years, until finally, in 1999, after suffering tens of billions of dollars in sanctions, Libya complied with the demand and handed over Fhimah and Megrahi.

The 2000 trial was held in the Netherlands before a panel of three Scottish judges and no jury.  While interest in a Libyan connection may at first have been genuinely based on circumstantial evidence worth investigating, it wasn’t long before the case against Fhimah and Megrahi looked thin and tenuous at best.  For just one example, the prosecution, with the assistance of a large cash reward of two million dollars, managed to obtain at best the lukewarm identification testimony of a Malta clothing store owner who sold garments packed next to the bomb.  The store owner, named Gauci, identified Megrahi as someone who looked like the clothes buyer, although his physical description of the suspect was of a much taller man.

The NY Times coverage of the trial was actually quite fair, with reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr. repeatedly expressing skepticism about the prosecution, and giving prominence to commentators, such as Scottish Law Professor Robert Black, whose criticism of the Crown’s presentation bordered on ridicule.  In one article, Professor Black was quoted as stating unequivocally, “A conviction is — I kid you not – impossible.”  Journalists Andrew and Alexander Cockburn wrote at length of the legal farce in a less Times-like manner, calling it a “frame-up.”

Prof. Black’s prediction was wrong, of course, as the Scottish judges found Megrahi guilty while acquitting co-defendant Fhimah.  The judges’ written decision acknowledged the ”uncertainties and qualifications” of the prosecution’s case, that key witnesses had repeatedly lied, and that the prosecution had not explained how the bomb had been placed on the Pan Am plane.  Perhaps it was these deficiencies that led Professor Black to his misplaced certainty of total acquittal, but apparently he did not count on the intangible forces at work behind the scenes, including government pressure for at least some vindication of the high-profile accusation against a public enemy country.

Once again, Times reporter McNeil critically assessed  the judges’ reasoning.  However, once the verdict was in, Megrahi’s status as terrorist/bomber/murderer of 270 more or less became etched in stone.  If anything, the verdict acquitting Fhimah was portrayed as the more scandalous finding.

Megrahi’s initial preliminary appeal was denied, but after a four-year investigation, another Scottish appellate tribunal issued a mostly secret 800-page report concluding that “a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.”  This would be one of the rare cases in Scottish jurisprudence, fewer than 10%, in which the defendant would be entitled to a full-blown second appeal, the majority of which result in overturning convictions.

So the stage was set for a fresh look at all the facts, including new evidence not considered by the original three-judge panel, such as the multimillion dollar payment to secure Gauci’s ID testimony.  But fate intervened.  Megrahi contracted pancreatic cancer, which by 2009 appeared likely to be imminently fatal.  The British eagerly jumped at the opportunity to release Megrahi on “humanitarian” grounds to die in his home country.

It rightfully seemed bizarre and outrageous, especially to many grieving families, that a man who deliberately murdered hundreds of innocent people would be released for compassionate reasons rather than be allowed to die in prison, a fate far less horrendous than that suffered by his victims.  It seemed even more outrageous when Megrahi refused to die on schedule and lasted three more years rather than three months. But there obviously was more to Megrahi’s release than British officials were eager to publicize.  One of the conditions for release was that he withdraw his pesky appeal, which promised new scrutiny and new evidence that would have been highly embarrassing to governments and law enforcement and judicial authorities alike.

Against the backdrop of condemnation of Megrahi’s release by the likes of John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Obama himself, Robert Mackey, in his Lede blog at the Times, valiantly revisited the case.  Mackey acknowledged the “firestorm of anger” over the compassion shown to a convicted mass murderer, but observed that such outrage was “clearly based on the belief that [Megrahi] was responsible for the bombing.”  Mackey also refused to classify doubts about the conviction as the product of wild imagination, noting that such doubts “existed outside the murky precincts of the Internet where wild conspiracy theories are spun out.”  He then proceeded to review the questionable trial evidence in detail, and rue the fact that Megrahi’s appeal would never be heard.

Nearly a year later, a mini-scandal erupted when it was disclosed that oil giant BP, which had recently achieved mega-villain status for its Gulf Coast oil spill, had lobbied the British government for Megrahi’s release to protect an investment off the Libyan coast.  Kerry thundered that “commercial interests — oil or otherwise — should never be prioritized over justice for victims of terrorist acts and severe punishment for convicted terrorists.”  He might have added, “Geopolitical interests?  Well that’s a different story.”

By the time Megrahi died in 2012, the troubling questions about his guilt, including the original focus of investigators on Iran and Syria, had predictably been reduced to dismissible “conspiracy theories.”  Times reporter Harvey Morris noted that Megrahi had “either cheated the Scottish justice system or … cheated death by surviving beyond his allotted time.”  Morris asked, “But has he also cheated relatives of the Lockerbie victims by taking the real truth about the bombing to the grave?”  Apparently unfamiliar with the far superior coverage appearing in his own paper by McNeil and Mackey, Morris did not contemplate that the man might be innocent.

So if it was not Libya, was there any credibility to the original theory of Iran/Syria/PFLP-GC/Abu Talb complicity, the one that exclusively occupied investigators’ attention for two years after Lockerbie?  Alex Cockburn thought so, and this conclusion has now been embraced by the new Al Jazeera documentary.  Libya is no longer on the official enemies’ list, and with the existence of bona fide evidence against Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians, will there be renewed interest in this theory that was dropped in 1990 for no apparent reason other than galvanizing support for the first Gulf War?  David Horovitz,  the British-Israeli neocon at the Times of Israel, already has heartily endorsed the Alex Cockburn/Al Jazeera version.  I wonder if he ever thought he would side with those two against the official US/UK line.  There have been a handful of others to take notice as well.

Will the UK and US jump on board?  Very doubtful.  The UK already risked, and received, public criticism and ridicule for releasing Megrahi, deemed a small price to pay to save the embarrassment of his probably successful appeal.  Although it was a British prosecution, the US was steadfast in its support throughout.  Together, these two countries deliberately suppressed the truth, hounded an innocent Libyan man to his grave, perverted the Scottish justice system with political pressure, fabricated testimony purchased with millions of dollars, protected the guilty parties, extorted billions of dollars from Libya in sanctions and compensation payments to the families, and cared not one iota for the hundreds of grieving families who depended on their officials to seek actual justice.  One can hardly expect them to acknowledge perpetration of a two-decade long miscarriage of justice just to claim that Iran and Syria committed an awful crime in 1988.

And what about Israel?  Netanyahu, who professes to be 100% certain of Iranian guilt for every atrocity before the smoke clears and bodies are removed, has so far held his tongue.  On the one hand, Iranian guilt for one of the worst acts of terrorism in recent decades, at least against the West, seems too good to be true, not that truth matters a whole lot to Netanyahu.  On the other hand, even a credible allegation of Iran’s role is a little stale by now, and it may not be worth embarrassing Israel’s closest allies.

While this tale of government fabrication and suppression of truth for craven purposes is hardly unique, the scope of this dishonesty and the ease with which it was carried out are somewhat astonishing.  The last word goes to Cockburn, who loved to quote his father Claud:  “Believe nothing until it has been officially denied.”

Note: Earlier version of this post said Iranian airplane was shot down in the Mediterranean. It was the Persian Gulf. Thanks to Niko and others for correction. –Ed

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