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     Volume 8 Issue 85 | September 4, 2009 |

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The Mystery Of Pan Am Flight 103

The Scottish government says it freed “Lockerbie Bomber” Abdul Basit Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds since he is dying of cancer. The Obama administration has condemned the release of “a mass murderer” while the US media has expressed outrage at the warm welcome Al-Megrahi received back home in Libya. All sides in the emotionally charged debate seem to have ignored an inconvenient fact: the case against the Libyan national was flawed from the beginning. Al-Megrahi may be entirely innocent.

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

She was named Maid of the Seas. A proud Boeing 747 of the Pan American fleet, she began her final fateful journey homeward on December 21, 1988, at 6.15 PM. As Pan Am Flight 103 rose into the gathering dusk from London's Heathrow Airport and winged its way over Scotland en route to New York, most of Britain was settling down for Christmas. The Jumbo Jet carried 259 passengers and crew. The majority were Americans, many of them returning to spend Christmas with family and friends. But just half an hour into the flight, as the 747 cruised at 31,000 feet over the Scottish coast, something in the cargo hold exploded. It blasted a hole the size of a briefcase in the plane's fuselage. The loss of air pressure caused the plane to break into pieces.

The residents of the tiny Scottish town of Lockerbie had no time to react as bodies began to fall from the sky -- along with airplane parts, suitcases and their contents, packages gift-wrapped for the holidays, and tons of burning fuel.

Of the 259 people killed on board Pan Am 103, 189 were Americans. Another 11 people died on the ground in Lockerbie when debris fell on them. It was the worst-ever act of airline terrorism against the United States barring 9/11. It was also called the world's biggest unsolved murder mystery.

Almost immediately after the Lockerbie bombing, the prime suspect was Ahmed Jibril, the burly leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Two months earlier, German police had arrested members of his terrorist organisation in Bonn along with a plastic bomb concealed in a Toshiba cassette player. A similar Toshiba player was found on Flight 103 and forensic experts said it contained the explosive device. Although based in Syria, Jibril's main patron was Iran. And just six months before, an American warship, the Vincennes, had shot down an Iranian passenger plane killing 290 pilgrims bound for Makkah. No one was charged, let alone prosecuted, over that attack. However, the Iranians had vowed revenge. There were also persistent rumours that the CIA was running a covert operation with Middle Eastern drug lords in order to free American hostages in Beirut, and the plane had been targeted because there were intelligence officers on board.

The plot soon thickened. There were several key pieces of evidence. Investigators said a brown Samsonite suitcase had contained the bomb hidden inside a Toshiba cassette player with a sophisticated timer. The bomb was wrapped in clothing to avoid detection. Luckily, charred remains of the clothing with a Maltese label were found. The clothes were traced to a Malta shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, who became a key prosecution witness. Gauci testified that he sold the clothes to a man of “Libyan appearance”, whom he later identified as Abdul Baset Al Megrahi, an employee at the Malta office of Libyan Airlines.

A circuit board fragment, allegedly found embedded in a piece of charred cloth, was discovered 22 miles from the crash site and identified as part of an electronic timer. The timer was traced through its Swiss manufacturer, Mebo, to the Libyan military, and Mebo employee Ulrich Lumpert identified the fragment at Al-Megrahi's trial. Mebo's owner, Edwin Bollier, later revealed that in 1991 he had declined an offer from the FBI of $4 million to testify that the timer fragment was part of a Mebo MST-13 timer supplied to Libya.

All eyes were on Libya. After a lengthy embargo and crippling sanctions imposed by the Security Council, Muammar Gaddafi agreed to hand over two Libyans accused by American and Scottish prosecutors. Twelve years after Lockerbie, on May 3 2000, the trial of the two Libyans, Abdul Baset Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah -- both employees of Libyan Airlines Malta office -- began. Megrahi was convicted of murder on 31 January 2001, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. His co-accused, Fhimah, was found not guilty.

Prosecutors said it was an open and shut case. But was it? Cracks had appeared in the prosecution case as soon as the indictments were handed down. After Al-Megrahi lost his appeal in Scottish courts, the United Nations observer at the trial Professor Hans Kochler described the case as "a spectacular miscarriage of justice." Many people who had lost their loved ones in the disaster agreed.

Martin Cadman who had lost his son Bill, told the BBC, ""I don't think the truth has come out. I think the investigation found what it was told to find."

Cynics pointed to the way in which Syria, Iran and PFLP-GC were the prime suspects initially. But right about the time of the Gulf war, the finger of suspicion swung towards Libya. Observers spoke about the Bush administration's need to get Syria's cooperation in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Many legal experts questioned whether it would be possible for the Maltese shopkeeper Gauci to positively identify a random customer who had bought clothes from his shop many years earlier. Malta has many Arabs, and Gauci told the police his brother had shown him a newspaper photo of a Palestinian terrorist, and he had later picked out Al-Megrahi becaused he looked “similar”. Questions were also raised about the integrity of the forensic evidence. The cloth with the timer fragment had been initially labeled “charred cloth” but at the trial it turned out to be labeled “debris”.

On 18 July 2007, Mebo engineer Ulrich Lumpert admitted he had lied about the timer at the trial. Al-Megrahi's lawyers found evidence of a break-in at the cargo area at Heathrow on December 21, which meant the suitcase could have been brought on board in London.

Abdul Baset Al-Megrahi has always protested his innocence, and claimed he was framed. His battle in the courts received a significant boost when a Review Board accepted that he may have suffered a miscarriage of justice and granted him a second appeal.

Many observers believe the “compassionate release” was a way for the government to avoid embarrassment in case the verdict was overturned on appeal. Since Al-Megrahi's release, there has been outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who believe him guilty are crying foul. So are those who believe him innocent.

There has been a striking difference between the reactions of families of the victims. While US families had been calling for Al-Megrahi to die in prison, British families have largely been supportive of the decision by Scots Justice Secretary Macaskill. Analysts say this may be a result of the more open way in which the British press covered the trial. The stark divide between the reactions in the US and the rest of the world is a clear indicator that the debate on terrorism is still framed by emotion, not reason.

Dr. Jim Swire, whose 23-year-old daughter Flora was killed on Flight 103, told Al Jazeera that he did not think al-Megrahi was guilty.

"A lot of people who looked in detail at the original evidence have come to the same conclusion as I have, namely that they're pointing in a very different direction: al-Megrahi and his compatriot were not in fact guilty."

Al-Megrahi has called for a public inquiry into the air disaster and says he will turn over all his documents to the investigators. The people who want him to die in prison clearly think he is guilty as charged. But the flaws in the original trial will throw further doubt on the idea that terrorism suspects can receive a fair trial in a Western court. The Scottish government, however, could redeem itself by ensuring that the full facts in the Lockerbie case are revealed.

Abdul Baset Al-Megrahi is a desperate man. He has always sworn that he wants to clear his name before he dies. His terminal cancer means he only has a few precious months to live. Whether his name will live forever as the Lockerbie Bomber is something that only time will tell.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009