The Daily Star
August 19 2009
By Michael Glackin
By the end of this week, Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person to be convicted in the December 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 270 people, may be released from a Scottish prison and return to Libya. Megrahi, a former Libyan secret service agent, is unlikely to enjoy his newfound freedom for long. His release, or transfer to a prison in Libya, is due to the fact he has terminal cancer, with a life expectancy measured in weeks rather than months.
The New York-bound Pan Am flight blew up as it flew over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. So when Megrahi eventually came to trial, a dozen years after the event, he was tried by a specially convened Scottish Court that sat in The Netherlands. Megrahi was given a life sentence by three Scottish judges who found him responsible for putting a suitcase containing a bomb aboard a flight from Malta to Frankfurt. From there the suitcase went on to London and was transferred to the New York flight that exploded less than 40 minutes after take-off.
Megrahi was positively identified by a witness, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who claimed he had sold clothes to Megrahi which were later found scattered over the crash site and had been in the suitcase containing the explosive device. However, it is now alleged that Gauci was offered a $2 million reward for his evidence by the CIA and a place in a witness protection program. It also emerged during Megrahi’s failed appeal in 2002 that the bomb may have been planted in London, not Malta.
Megrahi’s defense team was also denied access to official government papers that were made available to Scottish police. After conducting an exhaustive three-year review of the case, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission reported in June 2007 that there may have been a miscarriage of justice in Megrahi’s case.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack, is considering taking legal action against the Scottish Court because he believes it deliberately suppressed crucial evidence from Ray Manly, a retired security guard at Heathrow Airport, who revealed in 2002 that Pan Am’s baggage area at Heathrow was broken into 17 hours before Flight 103 took off for New York. Swire believes this was probably when the bomb was planted, and he is convinced of Megrahi’s innocence.
But if Megrahi didn’t do it, who did?
In October 1988, two months before the bombing, German police raided an apartment in Frankfurt and arrested several Palestinians. The raid unearthed explosives, weapons and, crucially, a number of radio cassette recorders similar to the one used to detonate the Pan Am 103 bomb. Most of the Palestinians arrested were members of the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Palestinian born former Syrian Army officer Ahmad Jibril.
The three judges at Megrahi’s trial rejected the argument that Jibril and the PFLP-GC had carried out the bombing on behalf of Iran and Syria to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by an American warship, which killed 290 people.
However, a number of intelligence documents indicating PFLP-GC involvement were not made available at the trial. Chief among these was evidence from the US Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the PFLP-GC was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing. The DIA also claimed that Jibril was given a down payment of $100,000 in Damascus by Iran’s then ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Hussan. Megrahi’s lawyers had planned to introduce this evidence – also seen by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission – in a fresh appeal against his conviction this year, which was abandoned to facilitate his release.
The conspiracy view is that after Syrian President Hafez Assad supported the US-led alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, Syria’s role in the bombing was swept under the carpet. Megrahi was not formally indicted by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.
The PFLP-GC is not the only suspect. When German police raided the Frankfurt apartment in the weeks before the bombing, they also arrested members of the Palestine People’s Struggle Front. It emerged that the group’s former leader, Muhammad Abu Talib – who is currently serving a life sentence in Sweden – was in Malta two months before the bombing. He was cleared of involvement during Megrahi’s trial, despite the fact he had circled the date of the bombing in a calendar found at his apartment.
The final part of the jigsaw is the Libyan angle. The PFLP-GC was subcontracted dirty deeds for Iran and Syria, but also Libya when the African state was at the top of the West’s list of terrorist states. Libya’s intelligence service worked closely with a range of terrorist groups. It is possible, even likely, that Megrahi had contact with the PFLP-GC, but not credible that he masterminded and executed the entire Pan Am bombing.
Megrahi’s abandonment was perhaps facilitated by Libyan reasons of state. In 2003, after the US-led occupation of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the lead in persuading the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, to give up on Libya’s nuclear program, the first step in his international rehabilitation. That same year, the Libyan government paid $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of those killed – around $10 million per victim. In 2004 international sanctions imposed on Libya were eased and a raft of Western oil companies signed multi-million dollar contracts to explore and develop oil and natural gas in the country.
You don’t have to be a cynic to see that Libyan compensation payments and the continued incarceration of Megrahi were a small price for Gadhafi to pay to repair his reputation and open the floodgates of Western investment. In 2005 Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem denied Libyan involvement and said the compensation payments were simply to “buy peace and move forward.”
The full truth about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may never be known. But what we do know now strongly indicates that the guilty remain unpunished.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star