Editor’s Note: The Scottish decision to free Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing, so he can die at home from prostate cancer has drawn angry condemnations from senior U.S. officials, families of the victims and much of the U.S. news media.

However, there has been almost no attention given to the troubling reality that the case against Megrahi was laughably weak, that there were strong indications that he was railroaded, and that the real killers may still be at large, as Middle East expert Morgan Strong notes:

President Barack Obama has said Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was wrong to order the compassionate release of Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan Intelligence agent who was the only man convicted of the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, an appalling act of terrorism that killed all 259 passengers aboard and 11 more on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland.

“We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this, and we thought it was a mistake," Obama declared.

The President, however, did not appear to be fully informed about the Megrahi case, perhaps understandable given the one-sided coverage that it has received in the U.S. news media. Left out of much of that coverage was the fact that in 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed to reconsider Megrahi’s conviction in 2001 out of a strong concern that it had been a miscarriage of justice.

Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, Megrahi’s co-defendant, had been acquitted and the evidence presented against Khalifa Fhimah was nearly the same as that presented against Megrahi. Further, the verdict by the three-judge panel was for a complete acquittal for Khalifa Fhimah, rather than a “not proven” verdict, which would have implied a less certain judgment. 

The panel’s principal stated reason for finding Megrahi guilty – while exonerating Khalifa Fhimah – was the testimony of Toni Gauci, the owner of a clothing store, Mary’s House, in Malta. Gauci allegedly sold a shirt to Megrahi, the remnants of which were found with the shards of the suitcase that contained the bomb. The shirt was traced to Gauci’s shop.

The remainder of the case rested on a theory that Megrahi could have put the luggage on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to a connecting flight to London, where it was transferred onto Pan Am 103 bound for New York, a decidedly idiosyncratic way to undertake an act of terrorism given the random variables involved.

It would be a brilliant example of evil genius – or a case of bewildering stupidity – to assume that at a time of heightened scrutiny about possible airline terrorism that an unaccompanied bag would be mindlessly transferred from plane to plane to plane.

For the prosecution’s theory to be correct, one would have to assume that three separate airport security systems – at Malta, Frankfort and London – failed to give any serious scrutiny to an unaccompanied suitcase or to detect the bomb despite security officials being on the lookout for just such a threat.

(And as historian William Blum recounted in a Consortiumnews.com article after Megrahi’s 2001 conviction, “The case for the suitcase's hypothetical travels must also deal with the fact that, according to Air Malta, all the documented luggage on KM180 was collected by passengers in Frankfurt and did not continue in transit to London, and that two Pan Am on-duty officials in Frankfurt testified that no unaccompanied luggage was introduced onto Pan Am 103A, the feeder flight to London.”)

Plus, there was the problem with Gauci’s belated identification of Megrahi as the shirt-buyer 10 years after the fact (and only after Gauci had made contradictory IDs and given a physical description that didn’t match Megrahi).

The chief reason that Megrahi’s new appeal was ordered in 2007 was that the Scottish review panel found Gauci’s testimony unbelievable. Gauci had been interviewed 17 times by Scottish and Maltese police prior to Megrahi’s trial and often gave conflicting testimony as to the dates and times he claims to have sold the shirt to Megrahi.

Gauci also reportedly received a $2 million reward for his testimony and has since moved to Australia, where he lives in retirement with his brother.

Apart from the evidence given by Gauci, the entire case against Megrahi was circumstantial at best. Indeed, it was more a hypothetical construct, which showed that it was a theoretical possibility – assuming a variety of unlikely events lined up in an implausible manner – that Megrahi could have been the bomber, but not that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Megrahi’s conviction, however, did serve the understandable human desire to see someone punished for the heinous crime. The original accusations against him in the early 1990s also fit with the geopolitical interests of powerful figures in Washington and London.

Plus, Megrahi’s background as a member of Libya’s intelligence service made him a target easy to demonize.

After Megrahi’s conviction in 2001, Libya was placed under severe sanctions by the United Nations, making materials for Libya’s oil industry, available for the most part only from the United States, exponentially more costly and thus more profitable for companies that could evade the embargo.

To export some of this machinery and equipment to Libya, American firms used dummy firms, little more than post office boxes in offshore locations, to handle the transfer of the materials to Libya at significantly inflated prices.

While these methods appeared to be illegal, it was difficult to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute, according to the Justice Department. American oil-field workers also continued to travel to Libya, albeit by boat rather than airplane.

To get the costly sanctions lifted, Libya was required to accept "responsibility" for the Pan Am 103 bombing and pay about $1.8 billion in compensation to the victims’ families. Libya, however, never admitted that it actually had carried out the bombing and Megrahi continued to protest his innocence.

After Megrahi’s release last month as a humanitarian gesture because he is suffering from terminal prostate cancer, the U.S. news media, American politicians and some victims’ family members went into overdrive with their condemnations of what they called Megrahi’s “hero’s welcome” back to Libya.

The outrage in the United States might have been more measured if the U.S. press corps had reprised the fragility of the case against Megrahi, but his conviction was treated nearly universally as a closed case.

The reaction in the UK and elsewhere was more tempered, although British authorities did come under criticism for allegedly mixing the Megrahi case with efforts to expand oil trade with Libya.

“Why is there such an apparent divide between the US and British relatives” of the Pan Am 103 victims? asked Pamela Dix, writing in the UK’s Guardian. “Why do they [the Americans] believe he is guilty, and we remain to be convinced?”

Dix then posed as a possible answer: “Britain is a country that has experienced terrorism first hand for many years, and has also seen numerous miscarriages of justice where innocent people were convicted and jailed for terrorist crimes they did not commit. So it is no surprise that many British relatives have a scrupulous desire to ensure this does not happen again.”

There have been examples of the U.S. news media making brief references to Megrahi’s continued claims of innocence but the evidence of his innocence has been played down or ignored.

For instance, you have to read to the end of a recent New York Times article, which puzzles over why Qaddafi had “overreached” in welcoming Megrahi home, to spot this stunning revelation by Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth.

“I remember talking to one of the judges from the panel that convicted him,” Vandewalle recalled. “He said there was enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction.”

This comment from one of the Scottish judges – indicating that Megrahi was railroaded – was extraordinary, and it might have gone a long way to explain why the Libyans hailed Megrahi as a hero: because they consider him an innocent man wrongly imprisoned in large part because he was a Libyan. But the judge's admission was ignored by most of the U.S. news media.

Instead, the U.S. press corps joined the outrage over Megrahi’s release and published, without skepticism, a harsh attack from FBI Director Robert Mueller, who had been a U.S. prosecutor involved in the Pan Am 103 investigation.

In a letter to Scottish Justice Secretary MacAskill, Mueller wrote: "I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors,” but "your decision to release Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice in this case. I do so because I am familiar with the facts, and the law. ...

“And I do so because I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of 'compassion.'"

Mueller said Megrahi's release "makes a mockery of the rule of law" and "gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation ... the terrorist will be freed by one man's exercise of 'compassion.'"

However, the intensity of Mueller’s protest may have been meant more to obscure the weakness of the case against Megrahi and to further discourage the U.S. press corps from reexamining the evidence, including the possibility that other terrorist elements in the Middle East may have been responsible -- and that the FBI had bungled the whole affair.

Despite the fact that warnings of a possible terrorist attack on Pan Am 103 were circulating in 1988, the FBI and CIA failed to take effective action, especially regarding the chief suspect, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, or the P.F.L.P.-G.C. headed by Ahmed Jabril.

At the time, there was strong evidence that Iran was desperate to get revenge for the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, by a missile fired from the American destroyer, the U.S.S. Vincennes. Though excused by U.S. officials as an unfortunate mistake, the missile killed 290 people aboard, including 66 children.

The PFLP-GC allegedly received several million dollars from Iranians to get revenge. The evidence of this Iranian/PFLP-GC collaboration included interviews with PFLP-GC intelligence officer, Major M. Tunayb, who identified one of the group’s members as the person who planted the bomb in a suitcase that was carried onto Pan Am 103.

Knowledge of this complicated history among Europeans is one of the reasons that there has been a more subdued reaction to the Megrahi release in Europe than in the United States, where the fury has bordered on hysteria.

In the United States, some members of a victims’ families association are calling for a boycott of Scottish goods and tourism in retaliation for the decision, while also demanding the resignation of the Scottish Justice Secretary and a personal apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
 
President Obama’s response also has been disappointing to some people who have followed the case closely, which he apparently has not. His comments critical of the release seemed to be calculated not to challenge "the Libyans-did-it" conventional wisdom of the U.S. news media nor to invite the anger of the victims’ families.

As for the U.S. news media, it clearly finds selling outrage and pain a lot easier than confronting the difficult issues raised by the Megrahi case. Some journalists also might cringe at the possibility of being labeled “Libyan apologists” or “conspiracy theorists” if they challenge the official story.

As part of the deal for his release on humanitarian grounds, Megrahi was forced to drop his appeal, which could mean that the Pan Am 103 bombing will remain a mystery forever – and that a host of politically touchy questions will never be answered.

Morgan Strong was a professor of Middle Eastern History and was an advisor on the Middle East for CBS News “60 Minutes.”

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page