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Pan Am

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The Framing of al-Megrahi

16 March 2014

The Framing of al-Megrahi

They lied, they’re still lying, and they’ll go on lying until Libya calms down enough to allow a thorough search of its archives. That’s what intelligence agencies do, and being angry at them for lying is like being angry at a scorpion for stinging. But we now KNOW that they lied about the Libyans planting the bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan airline official who was convicted of placing the bomb aboard the plane and sentenced to 27 years in prison by a special international court in 2001, was freed from jail in 2009 and sent home, allegedly dying from cancer and with only three months to live. He eventually did die three YEARS later, but it was a very peculiar thing for  the Scottish government to do.

Megrahi was in a Scottish jail because Pan Am 103, en route from London to Detroit, had blown up over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people aboard and eleven in the village below. But he clearly wasn’t dying when he was freed, and he had served less than a third of his sentence.

And there was something even more disturbing about the case. As a condition of his release, Megrahi was required to drop an appeal against his conviction that had been granted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007.

The SCCRC listed no fewer than six grounds for serious concern about Megrahi’s conviction, including the fact that the US Justice Department made an undisclosed payment of $3 million to two Maltese citizens whose evidence had linked Megrahi with the suitcase that contained the bomb.  If the appeal had gone ahead, Megrahi’s conviction would probably have been quashed.

That would have been deeply embarrassing for the Scottish authorities, especially since the evidence suggested there had been a deliberate attempt to frame the Libyan. But they did have the power to delay the hearing of his appeal for a very long time, and al-Megrahi was not a well man. So one can imagine a bargain being struck: his freedom for his silence.

Megrahi never stopped protesting his innocence, but he did withdraw his appeal, so the new evidence was never heard in court, his conviction was never cancelled, and nobody was embarrassed. But why did the intelligence agencies pick on him in the first place?

Because they had to abandon their first working hypothesis, which was that Pan Am 103 was destroyed in late 1988 as tit-for-tat Iranian revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iran Air plane with 290 people aboard by the US warship Vincennes earlier that year.
Since the Iranians didn’t have people in the right places with the right skills to do this job, US intelligence calculated, they paid some Palestinian terrorists to do it. The US even fingered the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril, as the ones who took the contract.

But the investigation moved slowly, and 20 months after Pan Am 103 went down, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US was mobilising a coalition of Western and Arab armies to liberate Kuwait, and it wanted Syria to be part of it. But Syria was Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, so this was not the right time to get into a confrontation with Iran.

Nevertheless, somebody had to be punished or the intelligence services would look incompetent. The people who carried out the bombing for Iran had made some rudimentary attempts to put the blame on Libya, and the security services now started using that evidence to frame Megrahi. The evidence was full of holes, but the Libyan’s defence team did a poor job of exposing them, and he was convicted anyway.

The reason his defence team did so badly may have been that the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafy, had made a deal: in order to be released from a crippling trade embargo, he would admit the blame for the Pan Am bombing and pay compensation to the families of the victims. For that deal to stand, Megrahi had to go down. A few threats to his family back in Libya would have persuaded him to sabotage his own defence.

But with the appeal that would have exposed the truth smothered, all this remained mere conjecture until last week, when the al-Jazeera network broadcast an interview with Abolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer. Mesbahi,  who once reported directly to the Iranian president, said it quite plainly: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, gave direct orders for the destruction of an American airliner after the Vincennes incident in 1988.

So the original hypothesis was correct, and the Western security services probably always knew it was correct. They don’t care; the case is closed, and with Megrahi’s appeal cancelled it will never be re-opened. But it is worth noting that he was an innocent man, not a mass murderer, and that his life was cynically destroyed by the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq, mass surveillance, and so much more.
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To shorten to 725 words, open paragraphs 9 and 12.  (“Since…contract”; and “The reason…defence”)

Al-Megrahi: Whatever Works

21 August 2009

Al-Megrahi: Whatever Works

By Gwynne Dyer

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was an intelligence agent. Since he worked for the Libyan government, he probably did some bad things. But he probably did not do the specific bad thing for which he was sentenced to 27 years in prison in Scotland.

He only served eight years. He was released on compassionate grounds last Thursday by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, and flew home to Libya. He is dying of cancer, but his release outraged the Americans whose relatives died aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. They believe that Al-Megrahi is a mass murderer who should die in jail – but that is not necessarily so.

There were also British victims of the attack, and almost none of their relatives think that al-Megrahi should have been in jail at all. As their spokesman, Jim Swire, put it, “I don’t believe for a moment that this man was involved (in the bombing).”

THE PRIME SUSPECT

Back in 1988-89, Western intelligence services saw the bombing of Pan Am 103 as an act of revenge. The US warship Vincennes had shot down an Iranian Airbus five months before, killing all 290 passengers, and the Iranians were getting even. (The US was then secretly backing Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, and the Vincennes, operating illegally in Iranian territorial waters, shot down the airliner thinking that it was an Iranian fighter.)

There was some evidence for this “Iranian revenge” theory. In 1989 German police found the same kind of bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 in a house in Frankfurt that were used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. The PFLP-GC was based in Syria, and Syria and Iran were allies, so maybe….

THE SWITCHEROO

But then, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Washington needed Arab countries like Syria to join the war again st Saddam so that the liberation of Kuwait looked like a truly international effort. Syria’s price for sending troops was removal from America’s most-wanted list. Suddenly Syria was no longer the prime suspect in the Pan Am case – and if Syria was out, so was Iran.

But more Americans died on Pan Am 103 than in any other terrorist attack before 9/11. Somebody had to take the fall. Libya was the obvious candidate, because it had supported various terrorist attacks in the past.

Soon new evidence began to appear. It pointed to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been working as a security officer for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta in 1988. A Maltese shopkeeper identified him as the man who bought children’s clothing like that found in the suitcase that contained the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103.

It was pretty flimsy evidence, but Colonel Gaddafy, Libya’s ruler, was desperate to end the Western trade embargo against his country. He never admitted blame in the Pan Am affair, but he handed al-Megrahi and a colleague over for trial in a Western court.

THE KANGAROO COURT

Al-Megrahi’s trial took place in 2001. His colleague was freed, but he was jailed for 27 years (in Scotland, because Pan Am 103 came down in Lockerbie). As time passed, however, the case began to unravel.

; The Maltese shopkeeper who had identified al-Megrahi, Tony Gauci, turned out to be living in Australia, supported by several million dollars that the Americans had paid him for his evidence.

The allegation that the timer for the bomb had been supplied to Libya by the Swiss manufacturer Mebo turned out to be false. The owner of Mebo, Edwin Bollier, revealed that he had turned down an offer of $4 million from the FBI in 1991 to testify that he had sold his MST-13 timers to Libya.

One of Bollier’s former employees, Ulrich Lumpert, did testify at al-Megrahi’s trial that MST-13 timers had been supplied to Libya – but in 2007 he admitted that he had lied at the trial.

And this year it was revealed that Pan Am’s baggage area at London’s Heathrow airport was broken into 17 hours before Pan Am 103 took off on its last flight. (The police knew that 12 years ago, but kept it secret at al-Megrahi’s trial.) The theory that the fatal bag was put on a feeder flight from Malta became even less likely.

All of which explains why the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced in 2007 that it would refer al-Megrahi’s case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh because he “may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.”

THE DEAL

The Review Commission s decision caused a crisis, because a new court hearing would reveal how shoddy the evidence at the first one was. Happily for London and Washington, al-Megrahi was now dying of cancer, so a deal was possible. He would give up his plea for a retrial, no dirty linen about the original trial would be aired in public, and he would be set free.

A miserable story, but hardly a unique one. A man who was probably innocent of the charges against him, a loyal servant of the Libyan state who was framed by the West and hung out to dry by his own government, has been sent home to die.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 13. (“The wer e…bombing”; “But more…past”; and “One of…trial”)