On Aug. 21 Scotland freed Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi–”convicted under Scottish law at a special court in The Netherlands of destroying Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on Sept. 21, 1988. Killed were 259 persons, including 189 Americans on board and 11 people on the ground. The terminally ill Megrahi, after dropping his second appeal, was released on compassionate grounds. Back in Libya, he continues to protest his innocence (see box).
Had Pan Am 103 followed its usual flight path it would have crashed at sea. But turbulent air over London’s Heathrow Airport when the Boeing 747 lifted off bound for New York led the pilot to tend slightly more northward than usual to get “above” the storm. As a result, when the bomb that destroyed the plane detonated 38 minutes later, the plane was over land, at Lockerbie. Inclement weather had thus spoiled what the criminals expected would be the perfect crime: no physical evidence and no witnesses to tell the tale.
Robert Black, professor of criminal law at Edinburgh University, told the writer that for the first two and a half years after the disaster, investigators focused on Palestinian Ahmad Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) as the culprit. In 1991, however, pressure became so intense to focus on Libya that Black concluded that only the governments of the U.S. and Britain could be behind it. It was Black’s idea to hold the trial in The Netherlands under Scottish law and with Scottish judges.
At the Lockerbie trial so-called “key witness” Abdulmajid Gauci would identify Megrahi as the purchaser of certain items of clothing found at the crash site that Gauci claimed were purchased at his shop in Valetta, Malta. But on the witness stand Gauci proved to be a flop at identification. An FBI officer, Harold Hendershot, called to the witness stand to bolster Gauci’s testimony, also appeared to lack credibility.
Another puzzling aspect of the Lockerbie trial was that, despite the prosecution’s insistence that the bombing could only have been a two-man job, Megrahi’s co-defendant, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted. No explanation was ever forthcoming. A middle-aged American (judging by his accent) attending the trial was overheard by this writer on a BBC broadcast expressing uncertainty about the testimony: “I wonder who killed our relatives?”
Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the crash, is sure that Gauci identified the wrong man. Swire is an unusual man. As an officer in the British army, he was trained in the use of plastic explosives. After completing his army national service, he worked for the BBC as an electronics engineer before studying medicine and becoming a practicing physician. Dr. Swire cannot accept as credible the Lockerbie trial’s technical details about the explosives that brought down Pan Am 103. He became a spokesman for relatives of British nationals killed in the crash. Overwhelmingly these relatives do not believe that Megrahi is guilty.
Dr. Swire is convinced that shopkeeper Gauci identified an innocent man as the bomber. In a Dec. 27, 2007 e-mail from Swire to this writer, Swire quoted Gauci as saying that Megrahi was “like” the man who bought clothes in his shop, but that the age and height were “very different.” Nevertheless, the Scottish judges accepted Gauci’s testimony.
Gauci reportedly now lives in Australia with a $2 million (some reports say $4 million) reward from the American government. According to the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” Web site, since its inception in 1984 the program has paid $77 million to more than 50 people.
But the biggest reason for questioning the validity of the “Libya-did-it” scenario is the sheer improbability of placing a bomb on a plane in Valetta, Malta, bound for Frankfurt, Germany, there to be offloaded on a second plane bound for London, where it would be offloaded on a third plane bound for New York, to explode 38 minutes later. Common sense would dictate a far more simple scheme: load the bomb aboard a plane in London with a simple pressure mechanism to go off when the plane was safely out to sea 38 minutes after takeoff.
In his Dec. 27, 2007 e-mail, Swire discussed the “timer fragment” supposedly found at the crash site, part of a device made in Switzerland and supposedly sold to Libya. If true, this could mean that Megrahi theoretically could have set the bomb to go off 38 minutes after takeoff. But the Swiss timer turned out to indict the Lockerbie court rather than Megrahi. Edwin Bollier, the owner of MEBO which manufactured the alleged bomb trigger device, revealed that he had turned down an FBI offer of $4 million to testify that he had sold the device to Libya.
In the aforementioned e-mail, from which I am free to quote, Dr. Swire said the Lockerbie court heard of a “specialized timer/baroceptor bomb mechanism” made by the PFLP-GC in the Damascus suburbs. This device would explode within 30 to 45 minutes after takeoff, but was stable indefinitely at ground level. The court heard that these devices could not be altered. “Yet the court believed,” Swire wrote, “that Megrahi ‘happened’ to set his Swiss timer in such a way that it went off in the middle of the time window for the Syrian device, surviving changes of planes at Frankfurt and London.”
Dr. Swire told the BBC News of Aug. 20, 2009 that the prosecution at the Lockerbie trial failed to take into consideration the reported break-in of the Pan Am baggage area at Heathrow in the early morning hours of the day of Pan Am 103’s doomed flight.
Many of the British relatives of Pan Am 103 victims have come to believe that the bomb was loaded in London, and thus that Megrahi could not be guilty. These relatives and Dr. Swire were opposed to Megrahi’s withdrawing his second appeal on the grounds that further evidence would come out that might have pointed to the real culprit.
In a Jan. 4, 2008 e-mail, Dr. Swire warned that “there is some deep secret hidden in this tragedy which evokes virulent responses…when questions are raised.”
In an Aug. 20, 2009 e-mail response to this writer’s inquiry, Dr. Swire said “that it appears that the Iranians used the PFLP-GC as mercenaries in this ghastly business.” According to this theory, held by many who doubt Megrahi’s guilt, including CounterPunch’s Alexander Cockburn, Iran hired the PFLP-GC to avenge the July 3, 1988 shooting down by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian Airbus passenger plane, killing 290 passengers, including 66 children. The U.S. ship’s officers later received medals for heroism in combat.
Having lost his daughter in the Pan Am crash, and as an expert in explosives, Dr. Swire is uniquely qualified to examine the Pan Am tragedy. America and its mainstream media did not reflect credit on themselves by refusing to acknowledge questions about Megrahi’s guilt.
Dr. Swire may well be right in blaming the PFLP-GC for the tragedy. But this writer still has his doubts–because the ineptness of the trial and Washington’s fanaticism in pushing such a flimsy case against Libya leave an impression that it must be covering up for the real criminals. Somehow it seems unlikely that the U.S. would go to such lengths to protect Iran, much less the PFLP-GC.