Dr. Jim Swire, UK Families-Flight 103
Should we doubt the Zeist verdicts?
A personal view.
27 March 2002
Having sat through almost the entire trial and all the appeal court hearings, what for me are 'reasonable doubts' concerning this case, were so numerous, that they formed themselves into a simpler and more credible explanation than that offered by the circumstantial prosecution case against Megrahi.
l.) The prosecution case was that Megrahi, (allegedly acting in collusion with Fahima, only he was acquitted), being a member of Libyan intelligence, placed a bomb, built into a RT‑SF‑16 Toshiba tape recorder, triggered by a sophisticated digital timer, on board a Maltese aircraft (KM180) from Luqa, for transfer at Frankfurt to flight PanAm 103A, and in turn transfer at Heathrow from PanAm 103A into a baggage container destined for PanAm 103, bound from Heathrow to New York.
It alleged that although the timer used by Megrahi was capable of running for at least 99 hours, he happened to set it in such a way that it exploded 38 minutes after PanAm 103 left the tarmac at Heathrow, instead of hours later, far out over the Atlantic. Evidence was led of a three tier system at Luqa to prevent the carriage of unaccompanied suitcases, but none as to how Megrahi was supposed to have defeated that system, except that, if the prosecution had merit, then evidently he must have done so. To this was added the implication that because the system of baggage handling at Frankfurt was clearly flawed, one of the unaccompanied cases on flight PanAm 103A must have contained the bomb and come from the Air Malta flight. Also Megrahi's country had a motive to revenge itself against America for the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986.
The prosecution case depended heavily upon materials painstakingly recovered from the crash site by the Scottish police and their helpers. The piecing together of the clothing from Malta, the locating of the shop where they had been bought, along with the identification of the tape‑recorder used for the bomb, complete even with much of its 'owner's manual', found miles apart, exemplified the supreme effort and skill brought to the inquiry by the Scottish police and searchers.
Unfortunately there is a mass of evidence, not led in court, to the effect that the police, for whatever reason, allowed American `agents' free access to the debris fields at Lockerbie right from the start of the inquiry. The trial court heard unequivocal evidence of how a suitcase belonging to an American intelligence officer killed on the flight, was opened, emptied and then returned as `evidential material' for forensic examination. It did not hear how a suitcase containing `sachets of white powder' was found by a local farmer, then whisked away by Americans, nor how a relative seeking to have this same mystery raised at the subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry was refused permission to have the subject introduced, and how the very existence of this case was flatly denied. During the appeal this matter might have been of substantial significance in relation to the evidence given by Heathrow baggage handlers. It was never raised.
It seems that some members of the local police force were very disturbed by the authority given to Americans to interfere with the evidence, sometimes even before they could collect it, and to be told by senior officers that they were not to enter material relevant to American activity in the area, in their notebooks. These factors were not raised in court.
In a murder inquiry we expect the police in this country to take control of the gathering of evidence from the murder scene, and to have absolute priority in doing so. Our concern over this American intelligence activity was hugely enhanced in February 1990, when President Bush (Snr's) Lockerbie inquiry, whose members met UK relatives at the US embassy in London, told one of our number that "Your government and mine know exactly what happened, but they're never going to tell". Did that knowledge derive from the debris at Lockerbie? Do we have no right to know?
This damage to the credibility of the evidence chain might also have reached critical importance in the case of a small fragment of circuit board alleged to be from a digital timer used by Megrahi in Malta. The label on its evidence-bag had been altered, by persons unknown, in a way unreported on any other label, and its description appeared to have been added to the forensic officer's report after the report had been annotated and completed. This uniquely compromised item was the sole evidential support for the use of a digital timer capable of starting from Malta. This evidence of possible deliberate falsification within the evidence chain, coupled with the improper access to it by those who had a huge stake in their murdered intelligence team, strikes a grievous blow to the already circumstantial prosecution case, yet it was not heard by the appeal court, and much of it not by the main trial court.
2.) The defence case. If interference with the evidence chain undermines the prosecution case, the tactics of the defence themselves appeared to fail Megrahi, who was dissuaded from speaking in his own defence. They only led three witnesses, relying on sniping at the prosecution ones instead, and completely abandoned their defence of 'incrimination'. This defence would have sought to show how a Syrian bomb factory in Germany fitted together with the PFLP-GC's other activities to provide a bomb perfectly suited to infiltration into Heathrow the night before the atrocity. There was evidence led that one bomb was brought from elsewhere to the PFLP-GC for completion, and that at least one of their completed bombs had been removed before their operation was shut down by the German BKA police. The defence were denied all knowledge of the Heathrow break-in till the appeal, though that 'coincidence' dovetailed perfectly into how their incrimination defence might have concluded. It may be that the high standards for admissibility of evidence in Scottish criminal courts also worked against them. Syria's refusal to co-operate with a court which had already been told of how a PFLP-GC group had been caught red-handed in Germany in October 1988, assembling bombs intended exclusively for use against aircraft in flight, using timers made by that group, in their workshop in Damascus, was inevitable. However a full explanation is required of why the Heathrow break-in evidence appears only to have been made available when one of those involved in security there noticed that it had not surfaced in the main trial. Its introduction during the main trial could not have but supported the defence of 'incrimination'.
In July 1988, six months before Lockerbie, Iran had an airbus shot down by an American missile. The captain of the ship which fired the missile was awarded a medal. Iran swore revenge. Iran Air was next door to PanAm at terminal 3 in Heathrow in 1988. The appeal court did not hear of any of this.
Nor did the trial or the appeal courts hear that the then leaders of Iran met with a senior member of the Syrian PFLP-GC terrorist group just after the airbus tragedy, 6 months before Lockerbie. Nor did the appeal court hear how that same PFLP-GC terrorist was arrested in Germany, 2 months before Lockerbie in possession of a bomb designed exclusively for use against aircraft in flight, nor how at least one of his devices had been removed from his group's workshop before his arrest. Nor were the allegations of transfer of funds from Iranian to PFLP-GC hands, through Switzerland, just after Lockerbie, presented in court.
The appeal court, but not the main trial, did hear how person(s) unknown broke into the airside area of Heathrow terminal 3 the night before Lockerbie. Just how rare such an event was was not quantified. The appeal court also heard how the Heathrow authorities made no effort to search the area till after the disaster the following evening. Yet that area contained facilities, and (at least during the following day) staff, belonging to the nation with by far the strongest and freshest motive for revenge, which had even declared its intention of striking back against American aircraft.
During the main trial, evidence had been led which revealed that the PFLP-GC terrorists in Germany had made a series of bombs some of which the Germans did recover and analyse. They found that those bombs had pressure switches which, if placed in an aircraft, would switch on the bomb's timer 7 minutes after leaving the tarmac, as the air pressure fell. Furthermore the Germans had found that the timers were fixed, and could run only for some 30 to 40 minutes, being incapable of adjustment by the user.
The result was a device which would simply not explode at ground level, no matter how long it lay about, but which would inevitably explode between thirty and forty minutes after take off. Unbelievably, even when one of their Lordships of appeal raised the question of the long time‑lapse between the break-in and the explosion, the defence made no attempt to point out that such a device was in terrorist hands, and would have perfectly fitted the break‑in scenario, including the delay till the next evening's flight. Those accepting the prosecution case are forced to accept three stunning coincidences:
The Lockerbie aircraft, loaded from empty at Heathrow flew for 3 8 minutes. Syrian terrorists, known to have consorted with Teheran immediately after the airbus shoot‑down, were manufacturing bombs for use against aircraft in flight, which were designed to be inert on the ground indefinitely, yet always explode about 38 minutes after take off. They could not alter this timing.
A break-in occurred the night before Lockerbie giving access to both PanAm and Iran Air facilities.
The sole piece of `evidence recovered from the site' which seemed to support use of a timer capable of starting from Malta, was also the only piece which had had its label altered and which did not fit into the sequence of forensic notes.
They must also discount the American interference with the evidence chain, including the emptying of at least one suitcase, and the 'disappearance' of a second, from the debris fields, along with the imposition on the police of a policy of not only allowing, but deliberately trying to conceal the extent to which the Americans were given free rein to access evidential material in the debris field round Lockerbie and Tundergarth.
In the dying days of the appeal we were again reminded how the Heathrow baggage handler, John Bedford recorded (in January 1989) having seen two suitcases, on the evening of the disaster, in the interline shed at Heathrow, which he had not loaded and which seemed to match the description of the case containing the bomb. Their Lordships of appeal, having heard nothing of US interference and disappearing suitcases on the crash site, rightly concluded that the fact that no evidence was led of the existence of the remains of a second similar case among the debris diminished the worth of Bedford's evidence. There was evidence led in trial and appeal, that at Luqa there was a three-tier system to prevent the carriage of unaccompanied bags, and no evidence of that system having been breached. At Heathrow there was no such protective system, Iran Air had adjacent facilities, and a break-in had occurred the previous night. Two bags fitting the description of the bomb bag, were actually seen in the very container at Heathrow known to have housed the bomb, and the official loaders denied knowing who had inserted them. As the Lockerbie Fatal Accident Inquiry found: "... in 1988 it was accepted that there was a danger of an explosive device being concealed in a piece of baggage ... that such a bag was likely to be unaccompanied ... that, in the absence of such a procedure at Frankfurt, it would have been a reasonable precaution to have instituted a positive passenger/baggage reconciliation procedure ... (at Heathrow) .... Such a precaution might have prevented the deaths."
If their Lordships of appeal had been fully aware of Iran's position and motivation, of the uncertainties surrounding protection of evidential material in the debris field and thereafter, would they have rejected the appeal? In addition, if they had been told of the availability to Iran of a device designed to survive indefinitely at ground level, but bound to explode approximately 40 minutes after take-off, and Iran Air's proximity to PanAm at terminal 3 would they not have experienced 'reasonable doubt'?
Intelligence services rightly have their motivation in protecting what they see as their country's interests at all times. Sometimes this may not coincide with honest efforts to uncover the truth, but most nations would opt to conceal this paradox 'in the national interest'. When it comes to US efforts to extricate their hostages from Iranian supported groups in Lebanon - which is what the brave US intelligence team murdered on PanAm 103 were involved in -, there might well be overwhelming temptation to depart from the path of truth and justice.
Their Lordships of both trial and appeal however seem to have acted entirely properly within the restraints placed upon them by Scottish criminal trial procedures, and the limited evidence presented by the defence. The prosecution made excellent use of all the material available to them.
It is the access given to American intelligence personnel, allowing clear interference with the evidence chain, coupled with the puzzling failure of the defence to point all of this out or to emphasize a simpler and more satisfying explanation involving incrimination, that demands explanation.
It seems to me that this case should now be reviewed by a legal authority preferably outwith Britain or America. Anything less than that would only inflame distrust between nations should the review again confirm the verdict. Remember the wise words of (then) President Nelson Mandela at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings: "No one country should be complainant, prosecutor and judge" in the context of the 'special relationship', which pools so much intelligence activity, America and the United Kingdom can be regarded as 'one country' .
How fortunate that at least Scotland long ago abolished the death penalty.
Dr. Jim Swire, March 2002.