Private Eye has covered the Lockerbie disaster story in detail throughout the past three decades. In May/June 2001, a special edition of the magazine was published, entitled “Lockerbie – The Flight From Justice”, which was written by Paul Foot with help from John Ashton, Robert Black and Tam Dalyell and from Lockerbie relatives including John Mosey and Jim Swire.
Fragment of the imagination?
The following is an article entitled “Fragment of the imagination?” which appeared in Private Eye issue 1195, 12–25 October 2007:
Claims that Scottish prosecutors suppressed evidence that could have pointed to the innocence of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi (pictured), jailed for life for the murder of 270 people in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, have prompted demands for an immediate international investigation.
Last week the Glasgow Herald disclosed that the prosecution team had examined a CIA document relating to a tiny fragment of a bomb timer said to have been found in the crash debris and used to implicate Megrahi. They had failed to disclose it to the defence, even though it apparently cast doubt on both the suggestion that the fragment came from the timer used to blow up the Pan Am flight, and the idea that it was, as claimed, purchased by the Libyans.
The existence of the document, uncovered by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, formed one of six grounds for concluding last July that there had been a miscarriage of justice. The commission did not disclose the sensitive document as part of its 800-page report into the affair because it seems it could not obtain authority from the US.
Given the sudden confession last month by Ulrich Lumpert, a Swiss electronics engineer, that in 1989 he stole a “non-operational” timing board from his employer and handed it to “a person officially investigating in the Lockerbie case”, and the stink that has always surrounded the case becomes overwhelming. Lumpert, who gave evidence at the trial, now risks arrest for perjury should he ever leave his homeland.
But even without these damning revelations six and a half years after the trial, the evidence surrounding the fragment of bomb timer, like so much of the case against Megrahi, is deeply flawed. Those flaws were exposed at the specially convened no-jury trial that began in the Netherlands in 2000, buth the three Scottish judges performed all sorts of leaps of logic to avoid them.
Shortly after the trial, the many inconsistencies were set out by the late Paul Foot in “Lockerbie – The Flight From Justice”, a 32-page special report in the Eye. The fragment of circuit board said to have come from the MST-13 timer featured heavily. It was made by Lumpert’s Swiss employer, MEBO, and was alleged to have detonated the bomb.
First, there were differing accounts of how the fragment, apparently embedded in the neck of a shirt, was found. By the time of the trial, the shirt was said to have been found by a policeman combing the area, DC Gilchrist, in January 1989. Forensic exhibits are supposed to be carefully preserved and labelled, but Gilchrist was unable to explain why the label on the exhibit bag had been changed from “cloth charred” to “debris”. The judges decided Gilchrist’s evidence about the change was “at worst evasive and at best confusing”.
The court heard that the fragment was examined by Dr Thomas Hayes of the Ministry of Defence laboratories at the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) in May 1989, some four months after its discovery. But the page on which he recorded his findings appeared to have been inserted in his notebook at a later date and the pages renumbered. Dr Hayes could not explain this. Hayes was one of the RARDE scientists criticised by the May inquiry into the erroneous conviction of the Maguire family for explosives offences in 1976.
If Lumpert is now telling the truth, he did not hand over an identical circuit board to investigators until June, and after Hayes is said to have examined the fragment.
The fragment wasn’t photographed until September by Allen Feraday, a RARDE scientist whose note to police saying it was the best he could in the short time available. No one could explain why a gap of four months was a “short time”.
What is clear is that it wasn’t until June the following year in Washington that US investigators identified the fragment as a match to the MEBO timers. The bosses of the Swiss manufacturers, Bollier and Meister, subsequently confirmed that they had supplied 20 such timers to the Libyans. Suddenly, more than a year after the explosion, the entire Scottish investigation switched its focus to Libya. Evidence already obtained, much of it from German police, that linked the Pan Am 103 bomb to a Syrian-backed terrorist cell in Frankfurt, hired by Iranians to avenge the shooting down of a civil airliner by the US, was promptly dropped.
The German police had discovered altitude-sensitive bombs, designed for aircraft, which could be packed in cassette recorders with timing devices triggered to start at a height of 3,000ft.
They were calculated to blow an aircraft up 38 minutes after take-off – exactly how long after leaving Heathrow that Pan Am 103 exploded. At the time, it was reported that a piece of circuit board recovered from a Pan Am aircraft pallet was expected to link it to the Syrian-backed cell.
The bizarre twist in the face of this mounting evidence incriminating Syria and Iran prompted Foot to conclude that it was nothing more than political expediency: the US suddenly needed Syrian and Iranian support for an attack on Saddam Hussein‘s occupying forces in Kuwait.
Foot outlined how Megrahi and his original co-accused Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, who was acquitted by the Scottish judges, were originally put in the frame by a “Libyan defector”, Abdul Giaka, a proven liar and cheat who was handsomely rewarded for his evidence by the CIA. A series of cables sent from his CIA handlers to headquarters, which were originally withheld from the trial but later released in a redacted form, showed that the agents themselves thought he was a man of little credibility. The judges agreed his evidence was “at best grossly exaggerated and worst untrue, and largely motivated by financial considerations”. But they never questioned why the prosecution should rely on such a corrupt and desperate liar in the first place.
Instead, the judges relied on the only other evidence that incriminated Megrahi: his identification, 11 years after the event, by Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who sold the 13 items of clothing that were packed around the bomb. The SCCRC found the many flaws in that identification evidence to be grounds for an appeal by Megrahi. And it has now emerged that they uncovered other sensitive casting doubt on Gauci‘s reliability. Unconfirmed reports suggest it relates to offers of payment by the CIA.
This week, lawyers acting for Megrahi are expected to make applications to the court relating to his forthcoming appeal, including asking for all the documentation in the case to be made public.
Dr Hans Köchler, the UN observer at the original Netherlands trial, said that if (as now seems likely) the CIA was able to dictate what was disclosed and what was not, then the entire proceedings had been “perverted into a kind of intelligence operation, the purpose of which is not the search for the truth, but the obfuscation of reality”. He added his weight to the families’ calls for an immediate independent international investigation into the affair.
- Dowell, Ben (16 February 2012). “Private Eye hits highest circulation for more than 25 years”. London: The Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- “Andrew Osmond – Obituary”. The Guardian. 19 April 1999.
- “Richard Ingrams interview” (PDF). Press Gazette. 15 December 2005. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
- “”Not Private Eye”, Tony Quinn”. Magforum.com. 21 November 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
- “Paul Foot, radical columnist and campaigner, dies at 66”
- “Lockerbie – The Flight From Justice”
- “Fragment of the imagination?”, Private Eye issue 1195 (page 28), 12–25 October 2007