PUBLISHED BY the plucky Scottish press Birlinn, John Ashtonís new book Megrahi: You Are My Jury: The Lockerbie Evidenceí casts grave doubt on the validity of Abdelbaset Al Megrahiís conviction as the Libyan terrorist responsible for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 and murdering 259 mostly American people in December 1988. At the same time, it raises deeply disturbing questions about the United States and United Kingdomís boasted commitment to truth and justice.
It is perhaps no surprise that the mainstream British media are fighting shy of this bulky volume the attention it deserves. For to discuss its contents would mean re-visiting a vastly acrimonious episode that threatened to poison relations between Britain and the US: the early release in August 2009 from his Scottish prison — on grounds that he was dying of cancer — of a Muslim convict who was seen by many as the personification of evil.
A member of Megrahi’s legal team, John Ashton is liable to the charge that his familiarity with the Libyan has clouded his judgment, but his book — which intersperses an exhaustive examination of the evidence that led to his conviction with Megrahi’s own testimony — collates the work of several hands and is a model of forensic rigour. It is indeed hard to believe that any fair-minded person could read it without being persuaded that Megrahi was the victim of a grotesque miscarriage of justice. The powerful impression left by the book is that Megrahi, who had run security for Libyan Arab Air Lines while engaging in clandestine trading, had the ill-luck to be in Malta, the putative point of origin of the Lockerbie bomb, at the wrong time, and that he was framed because the US found it convenient to point the finger of blame at Libya.
What has never been widely recognised is that the blowing up of Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie took place six months after the shooting down of an Iranian airbus over the Arabian Gulf in July 1988 by the American battle cruiser, the USS Vincennes, with the deaths of 290 Iranians, most of them pilgrims bound for holy city of Makkah. It was an outrage Iran immediately vowed to avenge, and all the indications were that it was Iran, acting through the shadowy terrorist splinter group, the Palestine Popular Struggle Front, that mandated the Lockerbie operation.
If, in the aftermath of Lockerbie, the US shrank from confrontation with the Islamic Republic, it was because, on top of seeking to negotiate the release of American hostages held by Iranian-backed terrorists, it was concerned to have a free hand in repelling Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait to Iraq. Yet a scapegoat for Lockerbie was imperative and Libya, with an egregious leader, Colonel Gaddafi, whose image in the West was that of a deranged tribal savage, figured as the ideal candidate. John Ashton’s book underlines how readily the Western public accepted the case for imposing crippling sanctions on Libya as the culprit for Lockerbie. Few demurred when — even before he was sentenced by three Scottish judges at a special court in the Netherlands in 2001 — US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeatedly described Megrahi not as a suspect but as a mass murderer. All this would be chilling enough — even if the case against Megrahi were a more compelling one.
In truth, his conviction relied on the testimony of a shopkeeper in Malta who had but the sketchiest memory of selling clothes to an Arab customer around the time when a suitcase containing the bomb was supposedly put on a feeder flight to London, there to be loaded onto Pan Am 103. It relied, too, on a circuit board, alleged to have been part of the bomb and to have derived from a batch of Swiss timing devices sold to Libya, though it was to transpire that this item of evidence — found far from the Lockerbie crash site — had nothing to do with the timers in question.
What is particularly shocking is how much material evidence was withheld from Megrahi’s trial — including the striking circumstance that the night before Pan Am 103 flew from London Heathrow, the airport was broken into.
The assumption that the Lockerbie bomb originated in Malta may well have deflected attention from a far more productive line of inquiry. Megrahi endured his eight-year Scottish incarceration in the bitter knowledge that he had been convicted on a basis that came nowhere near to satisfying the principle that guilt should be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Following 9/11, however, he felt that his chances of ever clearing his name had all but vanished. Certainly, the belief that he was the ‘Lockerbie bomber’, a malevolent Muslim who had carried out Britain’s worst ever terrorist atrocity, lodged deep in the public mind — so deep that when he was diagnosed as having only months to live and Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MackAskill, decreed he should be allowed to return to Libya to die, there was widespread outrage, not least in the United States. In Britain and the US, many were of the opinion that that Megrahi was the beneficiary of a squalid oil deal struck with General Gaddafi by Britain’s sometime Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and that British and Scottish politicians were not only colluding with a vile regime but insulting the dead.
Outrage about the commutation of his sentence grew as Megrahi confounded Scottish medical expectations regarding his survival prospects, living on in Tripoli until May of this year. And though he remained desperately ill, there were to be vindictive demands, following the toppling of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, that he be made to face justice in the United States. Yet on the evidence of John Ashton’s book it is not his truncated sentence that ought to be on British and American consciences. It is the fact that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was ever convicted at all.
Neil Berry is a London-based writer