Megrahi: eight key pieces of evidence
1.Why Megrahi dropped the appeal
CONTEXT: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi had two possible routes out of Greenock jail in August 2009: a prisoner transfer application for which he first had to drop his appeal, or compassionate release because of his prostate cancer. The latter route did not demand that he drop his appeal, in contrast to the former. In the event, he ended his appeal, yet the PTA was turned down, and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill instead granted compassionate release. The chain of actions has always been a mystery, leaving those who believe in Megrahi’s guilt to see his decision as confirmation of their views. Why would an innocent man not pursue an appeal against conviction that he had waited years to begin? Now, for the first time, Megrahi claims that he was pressured to drop the appeal by Mr MacAskill personally through diplomatic channels.
EXTRACT: “On 10 August MacAskill and his senior civil servants met a delegation of Libyan officials, including Minister [Abdel Ali] Al-Obeidi. By this time I was desperate. The 90-day time limit for considering the prisoner transfer application had passed and, although I had some vocal public supporters, MacAskill was coming under considerable pressure to reject both applications. After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obeidi said that, towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private. Once the others had withdrawn, MacAskill told him it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. He [MacAskill] said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me to be clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so. It meant abandoning my quest for justice.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: Mr MacAskill, who was not contacted in advance of today’s book publication, has always said he could not interfere in the judicial process. If Megrahi’s version of events is true, it will prove very damaging to the minister, who has repeatedly distanced himself from any appeal which, if it had gone ahead, could have been a massive embarrassment to the Scottish legal system. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had already found six grounds on which Megrahi’s conviction was potentially unsafe.
2. The timer fragment
CONTEXT: At Megrahi’s trial at Camp Zeist, it was agreed that the fragment of electrical circuit board found at the Lockerbie crash site [and referred to as PT/35b] came from an MST-13 board manufactured by the Swiss company Mebo and Thuring, its supplier. Mebo revealed that it had sold 20 such timers to the Libyans, and this became a hugely significant part of the case against Megrahi. However, the book claims that new evidence shows the fragment of circuit board found at Lockerbie, which was 100% covered in tin, did not match those in the timers sent to Libya and alleges that the Crown’s forensic expert at trial, Allen Feraday, was aware of the disparity but failed to disclose it.
EXTRACT: “On 23 October 2008, at just after 7pm, a member of [Tony] Kelly’s [defence] team finally put the crucial question to Bonfadelli [Urs Bonfadelli was responsible for the manufacture of Mebo’s MST-13 boards]: was the circuitry of the MST-13 boards coated with pure tin or a tin/lead alloy? His answer was clear and devastating: all were coated with an alloy of 70% tin and 30% lead. There could be no mistaking this, he said. It was imminently apparent what this meant: if PT/35b’s coating had not been changed by the explosion, then it could not have been made by Thuring and therefore could not have been one of the 20 timers supplied to Libya.”
Mr Kelly subsequently instructed two independent experts to see if the heat of the explosion could have turned the fragment’s tin/lead alloy to tin – Dr Chris McArdle, who had 25 years experience in the electronics industry, and Dr Jess Cawley, a metallurgist with over 35 years experience. The book adds: “..McArdle pointed out there was no way that it would have been hot enough for the lead to have evaporated away… Cawley agreed, pointing out that, although plastic explosives of the type used in the Lockerbie bomb produce a flash of intense heat, lead, like most metals, requires a far longer exposure to high temperatures before it would melt, let alone evaporate.”
Documents from the Ministry of Defence Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment, disclosed by the Crown just before Megrahi’s appeal was dropped, revealed contradictory notes from Mr Feraday saying the coating was pure tin and then “70/30 SN/Pb” (70% tin and 30% lead). The book states: “Had these documents been disclosed to the defence team, they would have provided the basis for a vigorous cross-examination of Feraday.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: This was one of the most important components of the prosecution case against Megrahi. As the book admits, this was the “golden thread”. However, shortly before Megrahi dropped his appeal, his defence team found proof that the timer was not one of those supplied by Mebo to the Libyans. If anything author John Ashton suggests – based on expert opinion – that the circuit board was likely to have been “DIY” rather than commercially manufactured. With this information, the golden thread falls.
3. The Iranian connection
CONTEXT: In the book’s preface, Megrahi says he does not want to “point the finger of blame at anyone else”, but much of the material drawn together will lead readers to believe that Iran funded the PFLP-GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command] to carry out the bombing, in retaliation for the American warship the USS Vincennes shooting down an Iranian passenger jet and killing all 300 people on board in 1988. The US apparently mistook it for an F-14 fighter.
EXTRACT: “The most difficult witness [for the defence team] to get to was the PFLP-GC bomb-maker and double agent Marwen Khreesat. Asked about the aim of his October 1988 mission to West Germany, Khreesat was unambiguous: ‘It was made very clear to us by Ahmed Jibril [leader of the PFLPC-GC] that he wanted to blow up an aeroplane. This was the whole purpose of being there. Dalkamoni and I travelled to Frankfurt in order to go to the offices of Pan Am to get information about their flight schedules. We did this. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jibril wanted a Pan Am flight out of Frankfurt blown up.’ Although Khreesat remained adamant that his bombs were not of the twin-speaker type used for the Lockerbie bomb, he revealed that Dalkamoni had at least one other radio cassette bomb. If Khreesat was right, here at last was confirmation that the PFLP-GC had at least one twin speaker device in West Germany.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: The initial investigation into Lockerbie in 1989 all pointed towards the culpability of a German cell of the PFLP-GC. There is much within the book, including the above statement by bomb-maker Marwen Khreesat which appears to confirm this view. There are also notes showing that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher blocked a public inquiry in the bombing and an explanation that politically it was not expedient to fall out with Iran – whose oil was relied upon – in the run-up to the Gulf War against Iraq. A great deal of the evidence incriminating the PFLPC-GC was not disclosed at the original trial or appeal. The heavily referenced allegations in the book make it seem more likely that they were behind the Lockerbie bombing than Libya. To have dismissed the evidence against them at the time raises questions about the role and potential bias of some of the security agencies involved, and the murkiness of the international politics which has always shrouded the Lockerbie case.
4. Reward money and the reliability of witnesses
CONTEXT: In the UK witnesses cannot be paid for their information. However, the book describes in detail how both Tony and Paul Gauci were offered reward money by the American Justice Department. And, we learn for the first time, that this was discussed even before Tony Gauci’s first statement. The book also reveals that Edwin Bollier, who ran Mebo and testified against Megrahi, was very interested in “the reward money”.
EXTRACT: “The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) concluded ‘In referring the case on this ground the Commission is conscious of the potential impact of its decision on Mr Gauci who may well have given entirely credible evidence notwithstanding an alleged interest in financial payment. On the other hand there are sound reasons to believe that the information in question would have been used by the defence as a means of challenging its credibility. Such a challenge may well have been justified, and in the Commission’s view was capable of affecting the course of the evidence and the eventual outcome of the trial.’” The book also reveals that several other witnesses had the possibility of reward money dangled before them: “Lamin [Fhimah’s – Megrahi’s co-accused, cleared at Camp Zeist] former business partner Vincent Vassalo whom Abdelbaset and Lamin had visited the evening before the bombing. He confirmed that it was his first meeting with Abdelbaset, who had introduced himself by his real name, rather than the one on his coded passport. He described Lamin’s shock on learning of the police investigation and his willingness to allow them to search the Medtours office and take his diary. Once the search was finished he said DCI [Harry] Bell [who was in charge of the police investigation in Malta] reminded him that a ‘big reward’ was on offer for any helpful information he could provide.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: The fact that Tony Gauci, the Crown’s key witness who testified that he saw Megrahi buy specific clothes in his shop which were later identified as having been near the bomb, was even offered a reward raised the concerns of the SCCRC. It undermines his witness statements, which we now know were far more inconsistent and numerous than previously disclosed. The revelation that Bollier and others were offered the possibility of reward money also goes some way towards discrediting the integrity of the investigation itself.
CONTEXT: The SCCRC unearthed numerous statements, police reports and other documents which had never been shared with the defence team. Part of the reason the case was referred back for a fresh appeal was the non-disclosure of evidence. A fascinating part of the book talks about the James Bond-like tales of attempted coups, spying and double agents going on across the world. In particular, it makes reference to an attempted coup in Togo in which timers matching those thought to have been used in the Lockerbie bombing were discovered, and hints at subterfuge and espionage by the American security services and others and details the confusion caused. The prosecution had claimed that there were only 20 Mebo MST-13 timers and that they were sold only to the Libyans.
EXTRACT: “The Commission unearthed potentially significant information about the MST-13 timers found in West Africa. Two timers were recovered from Togo in 1986. Among the documents disclosed to the Commission was a previously confidential memo, produced by [Senior Investigating Officer] Stuart Henderson the month after the interview of Jean Baptiste Collin [the official in charge in Togo], which provided a lengthy overview of the investigation. As the following passage made clear, the West Africa investigations were causing considerable concern. [SIO Henderson wrote]: ‘After the recent interview of Collin, it is now more clear than ever that the circumstances surrounding the recovery of the ‘boxed MST-13 timer’ in Senegal must be clarified beyond doubt. The whole essence of the ‘MST-13 timers’ is the sole manufacture by the Mebo company in world terms and the explicit distribution to the Libyan ESO. Unless we can consolidate the precise number of MST-13 timers circuit boards manufactured to fit the ‘boxed timers’ and confirm the fact they were distributed, solely to the Libyans, then we have serious problems with our direct evidence. [Collin] inferred that the Americans knew the whole story… Crucially the notes [by DI William Williamson] went on to record that Collin said the timer had been given to an ‘intelligence agency’.” To date, at least two documents not disclosed to the defence still remain a secret because the UK Government claims publicising them would be a threat to national security. The book states: “The last of the Commission’s Statement of Reasons… was certainly the strangest of the six. It concerned two secret documents, supplied by another country, which members of the Commission’s team had been allowed to view at Dumfries police station in September 2006. They were forbidden from copying them. On 27 April 2007, the Crown Office confirmed to the Commission that they had carefully considered whether or not the documents required to be disclosed to the defence and had concluded they did not. The Statement of Reasons gave only two clues to the documents’ contents. The first was an extract from the Crown’s 27 April 2007 letter which read ‘it has never been the Crown’s position in this case that the MST-13 timers were not supplied by the Libyan intelligence services to any other party or that only Libyan intelligence services were in possession of the timers’. The second came in paragraph 25.6 of the Statement which read ‘In the Commission’s view the Crown’s decision not to disclose one of the documents to the defence indicates that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.’”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: Since the trial at Zeist, Scots law has been challenged at the Supreme Court and the policy of non-disclosure has had to be changed. A number of appeals have been won on the grounds that important evidence was not shared with defence lawyers. We now know that numerous documents were not disclosed to the Lockerbie defence team. Some were sent to them after the second appeal was dropped. Others may never be shared. Advocates in the past have described the unfairness of partial disclosure as “playing with a stacked deck”. This alone could have seen Megrahi acquitted if his appeal had proceeded.
6. Forensics anomalies
CONTEXT The forensics case against Megrahi was critical. The book reveals anomalies, contradictions, and arguments between police, the forensics team, the CIA, and the FBI. It also claims that information was withheld by the CIA and says anomalies later found in the forensic evidence from the Ministry of Defence Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment “cast doubt on the overall reliability” of some of the forensic reports.
EXTRACT: “Six years after [Dr Thomas] Hayes [of RARDE] testified, a previously secret police memo came to light that contradicted his evidence and stated that a residue test had, in fact, been conducted…Most of the contradictory accounts about how PT/35b was linked to the MST-13 timer were only revealed seven years later, when the Crown’s precognition statements of Feraday, Williamson, Thurman and Orkin were released by the SCCRC. Had the defence known about them at trial, they would have provided the basis for vigorous cross-examinations of the relevant witnesses…
“Viewed in isolation, the individual anomalies surrounding the fragment may have appeared trivial, but together they formed a shroud of suspicion that could not be dislodged. Had they concerned a less important item, they could, perhaps, have been overlooked, but the fragment was easily the most crucial physical evidence in the entire case – the golden thread that linked Abdelbaset to the bomb.”
Other items were not contained within the forensic reports – including a small piece of circuit board from the radio cassette bomb found in Dalkamoni’s [of the Palestinian PFLPC-GC] car in Germany – something the defence team only learned about years later. The book states: “Whatever lay behind the multiple anomalies, inconsistencies, and omissions, their cumulative effect was to erode the façade of forensic certainty that surrounded the Crown case.”
There were other pieces of forensic information not disclosed by the Crown which pointed – again – at the potential involvement of the PFLPC-GC. “Further important forensic information was contained in a Crown precognition statement by Hayes’s RARDE colleague Allen Feraday. He revealed that he had been unable to rule out one of the debris items, PI/1588, as being part of a barometric trigger. Given that the PFLP-GC bombs found in Neuss [in the German raid on the PFLPC-GC] were barometric, this was potentially significant.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT This is one of the densest and most complex sections of the book. The details of different dates, reports, and contradictions is confusing but the overall impression is that the scientists and forensics experts involved were working under enormous pressure in very difficult circumstances. There is a sense that the American security services often failed to disclose or delayed disclosure of information to the Scottish police investigating. The overall picture is that non-disclosure of certain forensic information at the trial and the inconsistencies in the forensic reports subsequently seen by the defence team, raise serious questions about aspects of the prosecution’s forensic case.
7. The Bedford suitcase
CONTEXT: Ascertaining which suitcase contained the bomb was critical in the initial stages of the police investigation and subsequent forensic work. Much of the investigation focused on where the suitcase was “ingested” – whether it was through the airport at Malta, Frankfurt or Heathrow. Who put it on to the plane and how? According to the Crown, forensic analysis of the fuselage indicated the suitcase containing the bomb was in the second layer of suitcases – indicating it had come from a feeder flight, rather than Heathrow. However, the book reveals that Tony Kelly’s review of the evidence focused on a brown hard-sided suitcase seen by baggage loader John Bedford before the Frankfurt feeder flight arrived. At trial, the judges described Bedford as a “clear and impressive witness” but said there were many items of luggage not dealt with in detail in the evidence of the case.
EXTRACT: “Kelly’s team uncovered evidence that, had it been heard at trial, might have denied the judges these get-outs. If the Bedford bag were not the primary suitcase then, since he [Bedford] saw it before the arrival of PA103A [from Frankfurt], it must have been legitimate. By checking the surviving bags and descriptions provided by the victims’ relatives, [Detective Constable Derek] Henderson established the colour and type of all the legitimate Heathrow interline bags. None were brown, hard-sided suitcases…which meant it was almost certainly the primary case.” That information from DC Henderson was not in the list of productions for the original trial. The book states: “Abdelbaset’s draft grounds of appeal claimed that the absence of the Henderson schedules from the trial constituted a ‘material irregularity’…’that material evidence supporting the defence was not properly presented and the appellant was denied a fair trial’.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT Subsequent to the trial and appeal, evidence emerged of a break-in at Heathrow the night before the bombing. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the tragedy, has consistently drawn attention to this break-in and campaigned for a full inquiry into what happened. The Crown case was, in part, based on the assertion that Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah, his co-accused, ensured the primary suitcase containing the bomb was on the feeder flight from Malta. The fact the break-in at Heathrow the night before the tragedy only came to light after the trial seems shocking. The fact that UK Governments have refused since 1988 to hold a full public inquiry into the case, even more so.
8. Why Megrahi used a coded passport when in Malta
CONTEXT: At the trial, the original appeal and indeed in a press release last week, the Crown has always made much of Megrahi’s use in Malta of a false passport under the name Abdusamad. EXTRACT: “My numerous absences created difficulties at home. Like most Libyan marriages at the time ours was very traditional… she was understandably unhappy about my frequent foreign trips, and would often become upset on learning that one was imminent. I therefore fell into the habit, on shorter trips, of telling her I was visiting people elsewhere in Libya…The Libyan Government had by then introduced a policy of issuing those involved in the importation of embargoed goods with so-called coded passports which concealed their real names and their connections to state bodies. These passports were in no sense forgeries, but were rather official documents issued by the Secretary of Transport and tightly regulated. A further advantage was that it enabled me to leave my normal passport at home, which made it easier to travel abroad without Aisha knowing.”
LUCY ADAMS VERDICT: Chapter 2 of the book, entitled Before the Nightmare, explains Megrahi’s work importing embargoed cars, soap and cigarettes lighters, and aviation parts. Much of the chapter is in the first person, explaining in detail his course in marine engineering at Cardiff, his first job as a flight dispatcher for Libyan Arab Airlines and his subsequent promotion to controller of operations at Tripoli Airport. It provides a fascinating insight into his life before the indictment but I found it difficult to understand some of his justifications for lying to his wife as he suggest above. It might seem easier to believe if he said he had been having an affair. However, it may be difficult to understand because it is hard to relate to what it must have been like to live in a country under such strict trade sanctions as Libya had at the time.
These extracts are all taken from Megrahi: You Are My Jury by John Ashton, published by Birlinn.