(CNSNews.com) – If the U.S. Senate wants to get to the bottom of the early release of the Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, it should look beyond allegations of links to an oil deal and ask whether the prisoner was sent home to preempt an appeal that could have overturned the trial verdict, campaigners said Wednesday.
Twenty-two years after Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, close observers of the drawn-out affair have many unanswered questions about the attack, the subsequent trial and conviction in 2001 of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.
The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee plans a hearing next Thursday on the “circumstances surrounding” Megrahi’s release last August. The Libyan was serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison for murdering 270 people, but after contracting terminal cancer was freed “on compassionate grounds,” with Scottish officials citing medical advice that he likely had three months to live.
Megrahi remains alive almost a year later, and a group of U.S. Senators have called for answers, focused particularly on suspicions that British officials did a deal to safeguard a lucrative BP oil exploration contract in Libya.
BP acknowledges having lobbied the British government during negotiations between London and Tripoli in 2007 over a “prisoner transfer agreement” (PTA), concerned that delays in finalizing the deal could jeopardize its contract.
Scotland’s devolved government last summer rejected a Libyan request to send Megrahi home under the PTA (which would have seen him serve out his sentence in a Libyan jail) but then in late August released him on compassionate grounds, “to return to Libya to die.” (see timeline of Lockerbie affair)
Two men who have long campaigned on the issue – the father of one of the victims, and a U.N.-nominated international observer at the 84-day Lockerbie trial – called Wednesday for any new inquiry to dig deep.
Jim Swire, whose daughter died on Flight 103, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. John Kerry. Hans Kochler, the Austrian academic who observed the 84-day trial, issued a statement.
Both men are among those who believe justice was not done in the trial.
In his letter, Swire said it would be wise if the inquiry looked beyond Megrahi’s release, and examined whether he should have been convicted in the first place.
Kochler said the families of the Lockerbie victims deserve to know the truth, and any alleged BP role in Megrahi’s release was only one of many aspects that need investigating.
Why was the appeal dropped?
Something that has puzzled Swire, Kochler and many others was Megrahi’s abrupt decision just days before his release to abandon a second appeal against his conviction and sentence. (A first appeal failed in 2002).
The Libyan had throughout insisted he was not guilty and had for years been pushing for a second appeal. In 2007, the independent Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), which had been investigating the case since 2003, concluded that there “may have been a miscarriage of justice” and recommended that he be allowed to go ahead with the appeal.
After lengthy procedural delays, the appeal process finally got underway in mid-2009 and the case was set down for a substantive court session starting November 2.
On Aug. 12, however, Megrahi applied to the High Court in Edinburgh to drop his appeal, and on Aug. 18 the court agreed. Two days later he was freed and flew home.
Legal experts have pointed out that dropping the legal case was not a prerequisite for being released on compassionate grounds (although it would have been a requirement for a transfer under the PTA.)
“Was pressure put upon him to do so?” Swire asked in his letter to Kerry. “Maybe a proper inquiry would answer that question too.”
Kochler in his statement also raised questions about Megrahi’s decision to drop the appeal he had been fighting for for so long.
He pointed to a visit to Megrahi’s prison cell in early August by Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, the man who was considering the prisoner’s fate.
Kochler said an investigation should look into why MacAskill had held the “unprecedented private meeting” with the convicted man and whether their discussion had related to Megrahi abandoning his appeal.
At the time of Megrahi’s application to drop the appeal Christine Grahame, a Scottish lawmaker whose electoral region includes Lockerbie and who had met with the convict in prison, also voiced doubts.
“I know from the lengthy discussions I had with him that he was desperate to clear his name, so I believe that the decision is not entirely his own,” she said.
The Scottish government at the time denied that any pressure had been placed on Megrahi to drop his appeal.
The prosecution case was that Megrahi, who was based in Malta, planted the bomb in a suitcase there which was loaded onto a flight to Frankfurt. There it was transferred as unaccompanied baggage to a feeder flight for Pan Am 103, the London Heathrow to New York flight.
Swire and others believe that Megrahi’s appeal, had it gone ahead, would have heard evidence calling into question the testimony of a key prosecution witness, Maltese store owner Tony Gauci, who supposedly sold Megrahi clothing that was packed in the suitcase containing the bomb. In its review of the case, the SCCRC questioned the reliability of Gauci’s evidence.
Also unclear is the significance, if any, of an unusual break-in at a baggage area at Heathrow Airport used by Pan Am 18 hours before the Lockerbie bomb exploded.
A security guard’s report to anti-terror police about the break-in was not presented during the trial but in a later sworn affidavit he said it could have been possible for an unauthorized person to have obtained tags for a particular flight and then placed a tagged bag at a baggage collection point.
News of the Heathrow break-in contributed to conjecture that the bombers may have introduced the device in London, rather than Malta, thus calling into question the Megrahi link altogether.
That in turn took speculation back to a theory that was the focus of early U.S. and British investigations into the bombing – that a Syrian-based terrorist group, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), carried out the attack at the behest of the Iran.
Iran was suspected to have ordered the bombing in revenge for the accidental shooting down by a U.S. warship, the USS Vincennes of an Iranian passenger plane over the Straits of Hormuz earlier that year.
David Tal of Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies wrote in a paper in 1989 that substantive evidence was found in the possession of a PFLP-GC cell captured in West Germany just months before Lockerbie bombing, including bombs similar in design to the one that brought down Flight 103.
In 1997, a senior Iranian intelligence defector told German law enforcement officials that Iran had ordered the bombing to avenge the Vincennes incident and had asked Libya and Palestinian terrorists to carry out the operation. Iran denied the claim.
Libya’s agreement in 1999 to surrender for trial Megrahi and a co-accused – later acquitted – and its payment of compensation to families of the Pan Am victims resulted in a lifting of U.N. sanctions and improving relations with Western governments.
Key to the ending of sanctions was a letter Libya sent to the U.N. Security Council in August 2003, widely interpreted as Libya’s admission of responsibility for the bombing.
What the letter actually said was that Libya “has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials.”
In 2004 Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem caused a stir when he told the BBC that Libya had only agreed to the admission and compensation to “buy peace.”
“After the sanctions and after the problems we faced because of the sanctions, the loss of money, we thought it was easier for us to buy peace and this is why we agreed on compensation,” he said.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi later rebutted the remarks but his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – who played a key role in Libya’s return to diplomatic respectability – made similar comments four years later.
“Yes, we wrote a letter to the Security Council saying we are responsible for the acts of our employees, or people,” he told the BBC. “But it doesn’t mean that we did it in fact.”
“I admit that we played with words – we had to,” he said. “What can you do? Without writing that letter we would not be able to get rid of sanctions.”