Lockerbie1

by Dr Morag Kerr

 

Published iScot January 2015 Edition

 

It’s 26 years since Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, killing 270 people. The only man convicted of the atrocity, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, has since died from cancer yet doubt and division remain over what really happened on 21 December 1988.

The summer of the independence campaign saw a few important news items relegated to minor footnotes, not least in June when the application for a new appeal against the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing was finally submitted to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.



The application has been the culmination of a huge amount of work not just by lawyers but by many people interested in the case and it concentrates on four main aspects.

Firstly, the contention that the identification of Megrahi as the man who bought the clothes packed in the suitcase with the bomb was fatally flawed. This point was the centrepiece of the previous appeal which was abandoned when Megrahi was granted compassionate release.

Although the trial judges described the identification as “not absolute” they controversially decided he had been the purchaser anyway. Information acquired by the SCCRC in 2006 however showed that the clothes had been bought on a day when there was no evidence he had been anywhere near the shop in question. Secondly,

the application highlights an entirely new analysis of the forensic evidence, never before presented in court.

The new evidence shows the suitcase containing the bomb was one which was seen in the baggage container at Heathrow airport an hour before the connecting flight from Frankfurt landed. This utterly destroys the Crown case, which relied on the bomb suitcase having been transferred from the Frankfurt flight.

Then there is the evidence relating to the metallurgical composition of the fragment of printed circuit board designated PT/35b. This fragment was believed to be part of the timing mechanism of the bomb, and the Crown alleged that it came from a digital timer of a type made exclusively for the Libyan military, of which only 20 had ever been delivered.

Lockerbie30

However, a crucial discrepancy in the analysis of the metallic coating on the circuitry demonstrates that PT/35b was not made by the manufacturer who made all the items supplied to Libya. And lastly, the sheer amount of evidence not disclosed to the defence which would have been very helpful to the accused and in some cases exculpatory.

This covers not just the infamous “secret intelligence report” which David Miliband slapped a Public Interest Immunity Certificate on in 2008, but a number of other documents including one which would have allowed the defence to understand the problem with the metallurgical analysis of the PCB fragment at the time of the original trial.

This case has the distinction of being the first in Scotland in which published books have formed part of an application. Selected chapters from John Ashton’s 2012 biography of Megrahi, You are my Jury, have been submitted to the SCCRC in support, as well as the entirety of my own 2013 book, Adequately Explained by Stupidity? The initial draft of the application was prepared by Robert Black, emeritus professor of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, who has a long standing involvement in the case and has believed for many years that the conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

In a highly unusual move it is being submitted in the names of about two dozen relatives of Lockerbie victims, in addition to several close relatives of Megrahi himself. Aamer Anwar, the campaigning human rights solicitor and well-known advocate of independence is acting on their behalf. Prof. Black commented that any one of the four points enumerated above, if upheld, would be sufficient to have the conviction overturned.

He also notes that the second point, the one relating to the arrangement of the luggage in the baggage container, is in a different category from the others.

To have a conviction overturned it is sufficient to show that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. That’s not quite the same as proving that the accused didn’t do it, as some exonerated defendants have found to their cost. In England at least, in order to be awarded compensation for wrongful imprisonment the appellant must be shown to be “clearly innocent”.
The suitcase positioning fulfills that criterion by showing the crime could have happened at Heathrow airport, in the afternoon, at a time when Megrahi

was verifiably in Tripoli and not at Malta’s Luqa airport in the morning when he was catching his flight home. It provides him with a complete alibi.
The Crown Office is desperate to have this conviction upheld. They have indicated their intention to defend the appeal vigorously. Some of the mood music wafting around at the time of the previous appeal reveals an interesting fall-back position though.

If Megrahi had been acquitted on the grounds that he could not reliably be proved to have bought the clothes, the intended line seems to have been approximately along the lines of: ‘Of course it’s unfortunate that the shopkeeper’s memory wasn’t held to be reliable so long after the event, and that the US authorities tainted the process by paying him a life-changing amount of money for his evidence, but that’s legal process for you.

One can’t say it in so many words, but of course the bastard was as guilty as hell and our investigation was unimpeachable.’ That line could survive the loss of the clothes purchase, so long as you don’t think too hard about the court’s justification for finding the bomb started its journey in Malta, being that the man who bought the clothes was at the airport at the relevant time.

It could survive the loss of the timer fragment too, so long as you don’t ask awkward questions about how come an extremely close replica of such a distinctive and significant item came to be found at the crash scene in the first place. Point out that Megrahi was at the airport when the bomb was smuggled on board the plane and that he was a Libyan spook travelling on a false passport, add some heavy innuendo, and the job’s done.

The police are not looking for anyone else in connection with this incident. The suitcase jigsaw shoots that fox stone dead. The suspicious suitcase at Heathrow has been known about for many years, and it was known to the original inquiry from early January 1989.

Many commentators have speculated that it might have been the bomb. What’s new for 2014 is the proof that it was the bomb. The condition of the container and the airframe below it place the centre of the explosion with reasonable precision.

Factoring in the known packing arrangement of the luggage demonstrates that the bomb suitcase must have been in one of these two positions, with the centre of the explosion to the extreme left of the case. (Only a few of the cases are depicted in each diagram, to simplify the presentation.)

Case1This is a crucial distinction, because in position 1 the bomb is in a suitcase transferred from the feeder flight while in position 2 it is in the case which appeared mysteriously in the container at Heathrow while the baggage handler was on his tea break. From the earliest months of the inquiry, received wisdom was that the explosion hadn’t been in the case on the bottom of the stack, so the mysterious brown Samsonite seen at Heathrow could be disregarded. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could be so sure about this, and the reasons cited are unconvincing, but the investigators were adamant.

Multiple strands of evidence reinforce each other to arrive at this conclusion, but the most visually compelling of these relates to the pattern of damage to the two suitcases sitting upright behind the bomb.

The arrangement of the cases at the back, hinge-down-handle-up, like slices of toast in a toast rack, was described by the baggage handler who loaded them. The case on the left, the first one loaded, belonged to the earliest arriving transfer passenger, and can thus be identified with certainty.

The next one was one of three belonging to a party which arrived three and a half hours later, and it can be identified by the pattern of damage it sustained. They say every picture paints a thousand words, but this one is worth more than that.

The left-hand insert is a panel of lining fabric which covered the inside of the hinge end of the case on the left. It has sustained severe, destructive charring at the end facing the explosion. The right-hand insert is the main body of the case on the right, showing the most severe damage to be right at the bottom, at floor level – not half way up the side.

The explosion was quite small, despite its catastrophic consequences. If the bottom front corners of these two cases had been protected by another suitcase sitting below the bomb suitcase, as would have been the case in position 1, this damage simply could not have occurred. If this point of appeal is upheld, the Crown Office will be in an invidious position.

The charade of the Malta crime-scene will no longer be tenable. The investigation will have been shown to have been off the rails from its earliest weeks, and to have pursued a red herring down a blind alley rather than

Case2seeking the real terrorists in London that afternoon. Undoubtedly some faces will be very red. However, there’s a long way to go before that point is reached.

First, the SCCRC have to agree that there are indeed grounds for appeal contained within the submission it has received. Not only that, a new hurdle has to be cleared which didn’t exist at the time the previous leave to appeal was granted in 2007. As part of the legislation arising out of the Cadder case (relating to the right of a suspect to have a lawyer present during questioning) a provision was introduced into Scots Law requiring not only that there should be grounds for believing that a conviction might amount to a miscarriage of justice, but that there must be compelling reasons to override the assumed desirability of having “certainty and finality” at the end of a legal process.

While it’s true the legal system had no desire to be swamped by hordes of lowlifes appealling petty theft convictions because they had been denied access to a lawyer when they were first questioned by police, this is a big deal with far wider ramifications.

As it now stands, Scots Law can declare that it doesn’t matter if there are compelling grounds for believing you were wrongly convicted of murder, because it’s more important that a line should be drawn. And pity help you if you’re on the wrong side of that line.

Not only does the SCCRC itself have to be satisfied that “certainty and finality” should be overruled, the appeal judges themselves have the option of refusing to hear the appeal if they disagree with the SCCRC on this point.
The Scottish government has repeatedly declared that the only place to resolve the ongoing running sore of the doubts over the Lockerbie conviction is in the courts, by way of another appeal. Ministers have intimated their unconditional support for such a move, virtually challenging the bereaved relatives who harbour these doubts to “bring it on!” Well, crunch time is approaching, albeit at the speed of continental drift.

Will the government get its wish to have this all cleared up in open court, or will someone, somewhere, wield the dreaded “certainty and finality” ban-hammer over the process? It’s now five months since the application was submitted to the SCCRC. At some point the deliberations have to end and a report will emerge. How that is received will be a huge test of our criminal justice system, and incidentally of our new justice secretary.

read on > Chasing Shadows

*Dr Morag Kerr is the author of the book ‘Adequately Explained by Stupidity? – Lockerbie, luggage and Lies’