Saturday, 16 September 2017

There was only ever an illusion of a trial

What follows is an item originally posted on this blog on this date in 2009.

The framing of al-Megrahi

[This is the headline over a long and detailed article -- 6500 words -- by Gareth Peirce in the current issue of the London Review of Books. It is an utterly devastating critique of the Lockerbie trial and what led up to it and flowed from it. Anyone interested in the Lockerbie affair needs to read and digest it in full. The following are extracts.]

Only a simpleton could believe that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, was not recently returned to his home in Libya because it suited Britain. The political furore is very obviously contrived, since both the British and American governments know perfectly well how and for what reasons he came to be prosecuted. More important than the present passing storm is whether any aspect of the investigation that led to al-Megrahi’s original conviction was also about oil, or dictated by other factors that should have no place in a prosecution process. (...)

[A] number of the bereaved Lockerbie families have of necessity themselves become investigators, asking probing questions for two decades without receiving answers; they have learned sufficient forensic science to make sense of what was being presented at al-Megrahi’s trial and make up their own minds whether the prosecution of two Libyans at Camp Zeist near Utrecht was in fact a three-card trick put together for political ends.

Perhaps the result could have been different if there had been an entirely Scottish police investigation, with unrestricted access to all available information, without interference or manipulation from outside. Instead, from the beginning, the investigation and what were to become the most important aspects of the prosecution case against al-Megrahi were hijacked. Within hours, the countryside around Lockerbie was occupied: local people helping with the search under the supervision of Dumfries and Galloway police realised to their astonishment that the terrain was dotted with unidentified Americans not under the command of the local police. (...)

Although the crime was the most hideous Scotland had ever known, the integrity of the crime scene was violated; in part because outsiders were conducting a desperate search for wreckage that it was important for them to find and spirit away. As many police investigations over the years have demonstrated, such distracting irregularities can simply be red herrings, and these intrusions may have no bearing on the question of who blew up Pan Am 103. Was it individuals? Was it a country? And if so which one? From the very beginning, in fact, it seemed that the case could and would be easily solved. Considerable (and uncomplicated) evidence immediately to hand suggested who might be responsible; it was as if giant arrows were pointing towards the solution.

In the weeks before the bombing in December 1988 there had been a number of very specific warnings that a bomb would be placed on a Pan Am aircraft. Among them was a photograph of a bomb in a Toshiba cassette radio wired to a barometric timer switch; a number of such bombs had been found earlier in 1988 in the possession of members of a small group with a history of successfully carrying out bombings, primarily of American targets. One group member told police that five bombs had been made; at least one was missing at the time of the Lockerbie disaster and never recovered. The warnings were sufficiently exact that the staff of the American Embassy in Moscow, who usually travelled by Pan Am when they returned to the US for Christmas, used a different airline. Flora Swire, who was travelling to New York to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, found it surprisingly easy to buy a ticket.

All the Toshiba cassette bombs that had been seized were found, when tested, to run for 30 minutes after they were set. (...) It was precisely 38 minutes after Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow on 21 December 1988 that it exploded over Lockerbie; when the remnants of the destroyed plane and its contents were put together piece by piece by the Dumfries and Galloway police, fragments of a Toshiba cassette radio were found. (...)

That Iran and the PFLP-GC were responsible had fitted comfortably with UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East. Both countries had severed relations with Syria on the grounds of its persistent support for international terrorism; both had supported Iraq in the Iran/Iraq war, which ended in the summer of 1988. The obvious truth as it appeared at the time was that the Jibril group, sponsored in this instance by Iran, was a logical as well as politically acceptable fit.

Then, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thereby putting at risk almost 10 per cent of US oil supplies, and the stability of the Saudi and Gulf sheikhdoms on which the West depended to preserve the status quo in the region. A sudden shift of alliances was necessary: if Iraq had to be confronted, then Iran had to be treated differently and the Syrian regime needed to be brought on board. At the beginning of 1991 Syrians joined Western troops in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s invading army.

The centre of the Lockerbie investigation had by this time ceased to be Scotland: the CIA was in charge. Vincent Cannistraro had made his mark under Ronald Reagan, with a clandestine programme to destabilise the Libyan regime. He boasted that he ‘developed the policy towards Libya’ which culminated in the bombing of Gaddafi’s house in Tripoli in 1986 on the basis of intercept evidence later acknowledged to be false. Now brought out of retirement, Cannistraro shifted the investigation’s approach. The suspect country was no longer Iran but Libya, and in November 1991, the UK and the US made a joint announcement that two Libyan Airlines officials, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, had planted the bomb in Malta on behalf of Libyan intelligence. Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, announced to the House of Commons that Libyans alone were suspected and that other countries were not implicated. (...)

The key features needed to prosecute al-Megrahi successfully were the scientific identification of the circuit-board fragment, which would in turn establish its origin, and the identification of the purchaser of the clothes in Malta. The timers, the indictment stated, were made by a firm in Switzerland; their circuit board matched the fragment retrieved from Lockerbie, and they sold the timers exclusively to Libya. Everything, essentially, hinged on those links.

Who found the fragment? And who understood its relevance? Thomas Hayes of the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) claimed the find (with his colleague Alan Feraday) and Thomas Thurman of the FBI claimed the analytical victory. All were swiftly hailed (or hailed themselves) as heroes. Thurman appeared on television on 15 November 1991, the day after indictments were issued against the two Libyans, boasting that he had identified the piece of circuit board as part of a timing device that might have been sold to Libyan Airlines staff. ‘I made the identification and I knew at that point what it meant. And because, if you will, I am an investigator as well as a forensic examiner, I knew where that would go. At that point we had no conclusive proof of the type of timing mechanism that was used in the bombing of 103. When that identification was made of the timer I knew that we had it.’ This was the claim – the hard evidence – that linked Libyans to the crime. If the claim was false the bereaved Lockerbie families have been deceived for 20 years.

On 13 September 1995 the FBI’s forensic department was the subject of a programme broadcast in the US by ABC. At its centre was a memorandum from the former head of explosive science at the FBI, Dr Frederic Whitehurst. It was a devastating indictment of a former colleague. The colleague was Thomas Thurman and the accusations related to his investigation of a terrorist attack in which a judge was killed by pipe bombs. Two years later, as a result of a review by the US inspector general, Michael Bromwich, into a large number of criminal investigations, Thomas Thurman was barred from FBI labs and from being called as an expert witness. Bromwich had discovered that he had no formal scientific qualifications and that, according to a former colleague, he had been ‘circumventing procedures and protocols, testifying to areas of expertise that he had no qualifications in . . . therefore fabricating evidence’. (...)

There were throughout two aspects of the investigation over which the Scottish authorities exerted little authority: in the US, the activities of the CIA and in particular of Thomas Thurman and the forensic branch of the FBI; in England, the forensic investigations of RARDE, carried out by Hayes and Feraday. Without Hayes’s findings, the Lockerbie prosecution would have been impossible. His evidence was that on 12 May 1989 he discovered and tweezed out from a remnant of cloth an electronic fragment, part of a circuit board. The remnant of cloth, part of a shirt collar, was then traced to a Maltese shop. A number of aspects of the original circuit board find were puzzling. The remnant was originally found in January 1989 by a DC Gilchrist and a DC McColm in the outer reaches of the area over which the bomb-blast debris was spread. It was labelled ‘cloth (charred)’ by him, but then overwritten as ‘debris’ even though the fragment of circuit board had not yet been ‘found’ by Hayes. The fragment found by Hayes, and identified as a MEBO circuit board by Thurman, meant that the thesis of an Air Malta involvement could survive. (...)

No forensic scientist knows when he conducts his examinations whether or when there will be a prosecution that will depend on them; this makes it all the more important that his notes are exact. Hayes confirmed that it was his practice to draw pieces of circuit board where he found them – for instance in the vicinity of blast-damaged material – but he made no such drawings of this item, nor had he given it an exhibit reference number as he had every other exhibit being designated at the time, nor did he carry out a standard test for traces of explosive. Almost a month after his inspection of the timer fragment, Hayes was identifying and drawing exhibits which were given reference numbers smaller than the number of the vital exhibit. He recorded his finding on page 51 of his notes, but the pages originally numbered 51-55 had been renumbered 52-56 at some point. Hayes stated that he had ‘no idea’ when the change in pagination was carried out. The inference put to Hayes was that the original page 51 and the following pages had been renumbered, an original page removed and space made to insert what was now page 51 of his notes.

Curiously, a memorandum from Hayes’s colleague Feraday, written on 15 September 1989, to a detective inspector working on the case, referred to a fragment of green circuit board: ‘Willy, enclosed are some Polaroid photographs of the green circuit board. Sorry about the quality, it is the best I can do in such a short time.’ No one was able to explain why there should have been any shortage of time to make available in September 1989 photographs of an item that had been found on 12 May. Feraday’s note continued: ‘I feel that this fragment could be potentially most important so any light your lads or lasses can shed upon the problem of identifying it will be most welcome.’ Again no one was able to explain what light the lads and lasses could shed on something it was most curious they had not seen before now, given that Hayes had recovered it in May. Clearly it could not have been seen by the police before the cloth was passed to Hayes at RARDE and the fragment extracted by him. If Hayes had photographed the exhibit, as was his normal practice, then Feraday would not have needed to rely on Polaroids of dubious quality. The issue of his notes’ pagination was described by Hayes as ‘an unfathomable mystery’. In view of the importance of exhibit PT/35(b), how could the court have been satisfied by this evidence? (...)

To discover that al-Megrahi’s conviction was in large part based on the evidence of scientists whose value as professional witnesses had been permanently and publicly demolished ten years before his trial is astounding. The discovery nearly two decades ago of a large number of wrongful convictions enabled by scientific evidence rightly led to demands that the community of forensic scientists change its ways. Similarly, a series of catastrophic misidentifications required the introduction of sound new practices for evidence based on that most fragile of human attributes, visual memory. Witnesses must not be prompted; a witness’s memory, as far as possible, must be as safely protected from contamination as a crime scene. The first description is vital. If a witness makes a positive identification of one individual, no subsequent identification of a second is permissible. Equivocation and uncertainty are not enough. Even if the science that convicted al-Megrahi had not offended against every minimum standard, then the second pillar of the prosecution case, his identification by Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper, would remain spectacular in its noncompliance with any safeguard. He described al-Megrahi as ‘6’0’’’ (he was 5’8’’), ‘50 years old’ (he was 37), and ‘hefty’; said that he ‘had been to the shop before and after’, ‘had been there only once’; that he ‘saw him in a bar months later’; that he ‘will sign statement even though I don’t speak English’; that al-Megrahi ‘was similar but not identical’, ‘perhaps like him but not fully like him’, and, fatally for any identification of al-Megrahi in the first place, that he was ‘like the man in the Sunday Times’ (in other words, like Abu Talb, whose picture Gauci had initially identified). But Gauci’s evidence was needed and, reports suggest, handsomely rewarded. He apparently now lives in Australia, supported by millions of US dollars.

That a court of three experienced judges convicted on such evidence and that an appeal court upheld the conviction is profoundly shocking. Köchler, the UN observer, reported finding the guilty verdict ‘incomprehensible’ in view of the court’s admission that Gauci’s identification was ‘not absolute’. We had come to believe that such an outcome, resting on invalid identification, was no longer possible. ‘The guilty verdict’, Köchler wrote, was ‘arbitrary, even irrational’ with an ‘air of international power politics’ present ‘in the whole verdict’, which was ‘based on a series of highly problematic inferences’. He remarked on the withholding of ‘substantial information’ (‘more or less openly exercised influence on the part of actors outside the judicial framework’) and on the very visible interference with the work of the Scottish prosecutors by US lawyers present in the well of the court. But most seriously, he set out his ‘suspicion that political considerations may have been overriding a strictly judicial evaluation of the case’. All of this harks back to the bad old days when a blind eye was turned to the way convictions were obtained.

Al-Megrahi’s trial constituted a unique legal construct, engineered to achieve a political rapprochement, but its content was so manipulated that in reality there was only ever an illusion of a trial. Dr Köchler recorded at its conclusion that it was ‘not fair’ and that it was not ‘conducted in an objective manner’, so that there were ‘many more questions and doubts at the end than the beginning’.


  1. I attended the whole trial but for one week. My 19 year old daughter had been on the plane. After only three or four months it became obvious that this was not an objective trial; something was going on here.

    John F. Mosey

  2. Thank you, Rev. John Mosey, for checking in.

    - - -

    A fine and very rich article.
    Demonstrating again, that the proof that the trial was a scandal is infinitely heavier than anything the trial ever brought against Megrahi.

    The need for finding answers to one crime fuelled another crime against Megrahi, the Libyan people and the relatives.

    'There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice'

    And this is what we have.