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Controversy remains 25 years after Lockerbie

On the 25th anniversary of a deadly attack on a civilian airline, critics aren't convinced justice has been done.

Last updated: 21 Dec 2013 12:46
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Libyans Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah (L) and Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi (R) were accused of planning the Lockerbie bombing, but only Megrahi was convicted leading some analysts to question the investigation [AFP]

Glasgow, Scotland - Lockerbie was one of the most infamous attacks of the modern age, a crime that claimed hundreds of innocent lives and thrust a sleepy little town into the full glare of the world's media and watching public.

That crime was the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and Saturday marks 25-years since the American-bound airliner fell out of the skies above Lockerbie, Scotland. Killing all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 others on the ground, the December 21, 1988 bombing lead to the largest criminal investigation in Scottish legal history.

For the victims' families especially, the anniversary is a chance to remember loved ones who lost their lives that terrible winter's night. But, divisions between those who vigorously endorse the guilty verdict handed down to the only person convicted of the bombing, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, and others who gravely doubt the safety of his conviction and are pressing for the real "truth" behind Lockerbie remain as entrenched as ever. The Libyan himself proclaimed his innocence up until his last breath when, nearly three years after his compassionate release from a Scottish jail, he died from prostate cancer at his Tripoli home in May last year - yet his death did little to unite what has become an ever-increasing divide.

'Red herring'?

"What definitely happened over the course of the Lockerbie investigation is that the police and the forensics people missed a shed load of evidence showing that the bomb was actually introduced at (London) Heathrow," says Morag Kerr, author of the new book Adequately Explained by Stupidity? - Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies, who contends that the bomb was not, as the prosecution successfully argued at Megrahi's trial at a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands, loaded onto an Air Malta flight at the island's Luqa airport by the Libyan.

Once the police saw Malta it was a lost cause.

- Morag Kerr, author

"Whether that was pure incompetence or whether they were being prodded - it may have actually been a combination of both."

Kerr told Al Jazeera that one of the golden threads of evidence against the man who was convicted in 2001 - the clothes, which were said to have been wrapped around the bomb and which were traced to a shop in Malta owned by Tony Gauci who testified to selling them to Megrahi - was "a red herring".

"Once the police saw Malta it was a lost cause," says Kerr, who is also secretary-deputy of the UK-based Justice for Megrahi campaign. "The coincidence of the red herring that led them to Malta I think convinced them that they got the right guy. And, at that point I think it was a lost cause that they were ever going to go back and investigate Heathrow."

Strong 'circumstantial evidence'

While the likes of Kerr are adamant that both the direction of the investigation and Megrahi's guilt were grave errors - others take the opposite view. Richard Marquise led the FBI's task force on Lockerbie and refuses to be swayed by any notion that the investigation was flawed or that Megrahi suffered a miscarriage of justice, though he does lament the acquittal of Megrahi's co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah.

"When we did the investigation, we collected all the evidence that was available… and when it was all said and done the evidence we collected pointed to Megrahi, Fhimah and Libya," says the retired special agent, speaking to Al Jazeera. "We always hoped that we would get, through the years, more information that would substantiate that in greater fashion, but unfortunately we didn't get a lot. But, the circumstantial case was as strong as I've seen in my career, and I think the judges got it half right - I think Fhimah was involved although the circumstantial evidence was not quite as strong as it was against Megrahi. But, I'm convinced of [Megrahi's] guilt."

Stephanie Bernstein lost her husband on Pan Am Flight 103. Like Marquise, the American is emphatic that all the evidence points towards Megrahi.

"He did not wake up one morning, along with Fhimah, and say 'we've got nothing better to do, lets put a bomb on a plane,' they were agents of the Libyan intelligence service so they were of that part of (Muammar) Gaddafi's Libyan regime," Bernstein told Al Jazeera. "So they absolutely did not act alone - but I've got absolutely no doubt about [Megrahi's] guilt in terms of what he was convicted of."

As a dissenting voice to those of Bernstein, few are more high profile than Jim Swire. The Brit lost his daughter in the bombing and has consistently rejected the trial's outcome, arguing that the wrong man was convicted for the atrocity, and that two crucial points remain unanswered, both of which he and involved members of the British relatives are intending to officially challenge through an application for a further appeal against Megrahi's conviction or another route.

"Our position is that we've always wanted to know the truth about why the plane wasn't protected and who it really was that killed our loved ones," Swire told Al Jazeera. "And, we're not just going to go away because the (Scottish and British governments) are refusing our reasonable requests to give us that information… I've taken steps to organise the British relatives - and we are having a series of meetings with lawyers, but there won't be a satisfying statement about what the British relatives are going to do until the third week of January at the earliest."

Megrahi: A scapegoat?

Yet, as to searching out other avenues of blame for the Lockerbie disaster and giving credence to the claims made by Kerr and others who, by way of published works, have cast doubt on the eyewitness account of Gauci selling the clothes, Malta airport being the starting point for the bomb and other aspects of the evidence, Bernstein remains unmoved.

"These are old recycled stories - none of these are new," says Bernstein, who argues "the real story of Lockerbie is the dogged determination of the Scottish police and the FBI and Scottish law enforcement in general who covered every single inch of that territory (of debris) by foot". "If you said to me a couple of months ago, what would you predict about what would happen about press coverage around the 25th anniversary, I think we all would have predicted this."

Lockerbie victims' families in rift over Megrahi

But, why the widely-reported difference between the conviction of the US families who believe in Megrahi's guilt and many of their UK counterparts who have expressed grave doubt? Swire claims that the stateside relatives "seem to be ready to accept what their government tells them much more readily than many of us do".

"When the trial was ongoing, it was two British relatives, one of whom was me, who were there and watched the trial unfold - and became convinced to their horror that they were seeing a scapegoating of Megrahi," adds the retired GP, who contends that the American families likely "wish I would just go away and forget it all".

But, even for many of those on the other side of the Atlantic who are themselves yet to be convinced of Megrahi's innocence, there is a belief that efforts to clear his name must be directly confronted if only to lift a shadow from one of Scotland's most revered national institutions.

"Lockerbie is a huge cloud hanging over the Scottish justice system," Magnus Linklater, a leading Scottish political commentator, told Al Jazeera. "It's almost as if the allegation that Megrahi is innocent is the default position. But, that in its turn has not been tested and it's been allowed to go unchallenged and it's high time that it was properly challenged."

Follow Alasdair on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

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Al Jazeera
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