New material revealed in book is said to raise doubts about the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi
Lockerbie bombing victims’ relatives have urged the Scottish government to stage a public inquiry into allegations that “vital” evidence about the bombing was suppressed.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was among 270 people killed in the bombing, said the withheld evidence raised profound doubts about the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan man released from jail on compassionate grounds in August 2009.
Documents given to Megrahi’s defence lawyers a month before he dropped his appeal show that government scientists had found significant differences between a bomb timer fragment allegedly found after the attack and the type supplied to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s former regime, Swire said.
A new account of the bombing and Megrahi’s conviction, Megrahi: You Are My Jury, published in Edinburgh on Monday, alleges that the Crown Office, the police and Ministry of Defence scientists failed to disclose numerous pieces of evidence that damaged their case against the Libyan. Speaking at the book’s launch with John Moseley, a fellow campaigner, Swire, chairman of UK Families Flight 103, said there were “mountains of evidence that doesn’t seem to be right and that needs to be examined”.
The timer evidence was “a vital clue”, he said. “It’s an anomaly that stands out plain for all to see.” He said he had also pressed Frank Mulholland, the lord advocate and Scotland’s chief prosecutor, to investigate evidence that the bomb could have been put on Pan Am Flight 103 after an undisclosed break-in at Heathrow airport and not in Malta as claimed, when they met last Thursday.
Opposition leaders quickly intensified the pressure by demanding that Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary who released Megrahi, make an “urgent” statement to the Scottish parliament after the book alleged he had privately urged Megrahi to drop his appeal.
The book, written in close collaboration with Megrahi by a former member of his defence team, John Ashton, said MacAskill had made the suggestion in a private conversation with Libya’s then foreign minister, Abdulati al-Obedi, after a formal meeting between the two governments on 10 August 2009 in Edinburgh. Quoting Obedi, Megrahi said MacAskill had asked to speak to the minister alone. “Once the others had withdrawn, [Obedi] stated that MacAskill gave him to understand that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. He said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me to be clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so.”
Although significant doubts about his conviction had been raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, the next day Megrahi told his lawyer Tony Kelly that he was dropping his appeal “with huge reluctance and sadness”.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said “these grave allegations” suggested the justice secretary wanted Megrahi released to avoid a potentially embarrassing appeal.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said MacAskill had serious questions to answer. “Allegations of suppression of evidence and a Greenock prison release deal between the justice secretary and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi make it essential for a statement to be made to parliament,” he said.
A Scottish government spokesman dismissed the allegations about the conversation between MacAskill and Obedi as wrong and based on “third hand hearsay”. He added: “We can say categorically that neither the Scottish government had any involvement of any kind in Mr Al-Megrahi dropping his appeal, or indeed any interest in it.”
He continued: “The Scottish government do not doubt the safety of Mr Al-Megrahi’s conviction, who was found guilty of an act of state-sponsored terrorism and did not act alone.”
New interviews with Megrahi to be broadcast by the BBC and Al-Jazeera on Monday suggest the Libyan, who is in the final stages of advanced terminal prostate cancer, is extremely weak. Swire said he expected Megrahi to die soon. They last met in December. “He is so sick that he can’t say more than a few phrases” and is “wracked with pain”, Swire said.
The book, originally intended to be the Libyan’s autobiography, includes the most detailed testimony from Megrahi so far about the trial and his campaign against his conviction. A journalist specialising in the Lockerbie bombing, Ashton was a researcher retained to help prepare Megrahi’s appeal and paid indirectly by the then Libyan regime.
Ashton discloses that in the months leading up to Megrahi’s incomplete appeal, the defence team was given large volumes of prosecution material on the forensic reports, the chief witness against Megrahi and the police’s behaviour, which was not disclosed at Megrahi’s trial in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.
Claiming there was an “industrial-level failure to disclose”, Ashton said the new material, which was not given to the defence or at the trial, included:
• Documentary evidence that scientists at the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, now part of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, discovered there were key differences in the metal coatings used in a timer fragment allegedly used in Lockerbie and a control sample from the type supplied to the Libyans. One used a coating made wholly of tin; the control sample used a tin/lead alloy.
• Evidence that the timer fragment had several differences from the Swiss-built devices sold to Gaddafi’s regime, including the type of circuit board it used.
• That Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who claimed Megrahi had bought clothes allegedly used in the bombing from his shop, was offered a US reward of $2m or more, while Gauci’s brother Paul could have received $1m, with the help of Dumfries and Galloway police.
• That Gauci met Scottish detectives as many as 50 times while the prosecution case was being prepared; while making 23 formal statements. Four of the statements were not disclosed.
Gauci repeatedly changed his account, including identifying people who looked like known Middle Eastern terrorists and giving different dates on which the clothes were bought, seriously undermining the prosecution case against Megrahi.
The book quotes Megrahi insisting he was framed for the attack. He does not blame Dumfries and Galloway police, saying they were only doing their jobs, but accuses the Crown Office of a blatant breach of its obligation to disclose all the evidence in the case. “If I was a terrorist, then I was an exceptionally stupid one,” Megrahi said.
If the prosecution was right, he carried out the attack at times using his own passport, stayed in his regular hotel, bought the clothes in a small shop rather than a large one, used normal scheduled flights to and from Malta, planted the bomb on two feeder flights before Pan Am 103, and used a timer the Libyans believed was exclusively made for them. Officials for MacAskill and the lord advocate are studying the new allegations but have not yet responded.
from Severin Carrell