LOCKERBIE, SCOTLAND — Case closed.
After a trial at Camp Zeist, a Libyan was handed a life sentence for the bombing of Pan Am 103. There is little doubt that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was a figure in Libyan intelligence services. But, was the man behind bars, at Greenock Prison in Scotland, a key architect of the Lockerbie attack, or was he even a key player? It all comes down to the question of whether the prosecution got it right.
“My starting point always has been the evidence, and the evidence simply did not establish his guilt,” said Robert Black.
Black, a professor of law at Edinburgh University, says the investigators and the judges got it wrong.
“The judges blithely ignored unchallenged evidence that pointed in another direction. They cherry-picked,” he said.
It's July 1988. A U.S. warship is under attack by Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf. In the midst of the confrontation, the crew aboard the U.S.S. Vincennes spots what it believes to be an approaching Iranian fighter jet closing in on their position. The U.S. Response is lethal.
But, it's not long before the Vincennes crew realizes it's made a tragic mistake. It is not an Iranian fighter jet, but an Iranian passenger jet shot down, 290 people were aboard. And there was a quick promise of Iranian revenge.
“We are ready to answer your actions,” said an Iranian voice on the radio.
In the months to come, intelligence agencies report a series of meetings, organized by a leading Iranian government radical — Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur. Among those in attendance, Ahmed Jibril, leader of a splinter Palestinian group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the PFLP-GC. Jibril is also a close ally of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Jibril's deputy is Hafez Dalkamoni — a man being closely watched by German police. Police know of a plot to bomb aircraft flying out of Frankfurt. When they make their move, Dalkamoni and several others are arrested. Weapons are found, including a bomb, hidden in a radio cassette player. There are indications that five bombs have been produced. Only four are recovered.
A man with close ties to the PLFP-GC is Mohammed Abu Talb. Talb has visited Frankfurt. And later is spotted in Malta, shortly before the Lockerbie bombing. At his home, police will later find a calendar. A date is circled: December 21, 1988.
Did Iran pay the PFLP-GC to exact its revenge — airliner for airline?
Black says, “There is, indeed, a paper trail of money going from Iranian sources, through various channels, into the bank account of the PFLP-GC. And that trail of money starts two days after Pan Am 103 was destroyed.”
Critics of the official case against Libya say that country was finally pursued for geo-political reasons as the U.S. prepared for the first war with Iraq. James Swire lost his daughter Flora in the Lockerbie bombing.
“Iran had an enormous standing army. Syria had a huge cohort of Russian tanks. And it was hugely unlikely that they would be able to control the intent of those countries if they started accusing them of having caused the atrocity,” he said.
The man who headed the Scottish side of the case against Libya says it’s possible the Libyan agents, knowing of the Frankfurt arrests, may have used details of that plot to cover their own moves, including housing the bomb in a Toshiba cassette player.
“It wasn't exactly the same model, but it was a Toshiba. Was that to throw people off the scent, in case there was some tracking down?” said Lord Peter Fraser, the Scottish Lord Advocate from 1989-1992.
Fraser says there is other evidence against Libya, as well. The identification of Megrahi as the man who purchased the clothing. An identification that critics, like Black, question. And, in fact, at one point, the shop owner in Malta says the man who bought the clothes resembled Mohammed Abu Talb. And then there is that timer fragment that linked the bomb to Libya. And a number of documents that prosecutors are refusing to show the defense, citing national security reasons.
“We have been told that the new information in these documents is about timers. And, as I say, the timer evidence at the original trial was crucial,” Black said.
Relatives of those who died in Lockerbie sense that the case against two Libyans was far from a "final answer."
“Other people involved have not been punished, so no, total justice or even a total semblance of justice has not been done,” said Robert Hunt, the father of a Pan Am 103 victim.
“Were those two implicated? Yeah. Were they part of the conspiracy? I believe they were. But I believe the tentacles of that investigation should have reached far further,” said Jeanine Boulanger, the mother of a Pan Am 103 victim.
Black says, “If it's closure and a solution to Lockerbie that we're looking for, I honestly don't think we're going to get it.”