Lockerbie: Case closed

Was Abdel Baset al-Megrahi wrongly convicted of being responsible for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing?

This film first aired in February.

Wednesday, December 21, 1988 was the longest night of the year, the night of the winter solstice. At 6.30pm that evening Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London Heathrow airport en route to JFK New York. On board Clipper Maid of the Skies, as it was called, were 16 crew members and 243 passengers, many of whom were carrying Christmas gifts in their luggage for family and friends.

But also in the baggage hold was a brown Samsonite suitcase, packed with new clothes and a Toshiba radio cassette player. Investigators later determined that hidden in the Toshiba were some 450 grammes of high explosive and an electronic timer. At 7.03pm as the plane was 31,000 feet over Scotland, the device exploded. A little under a minute later, 200,000 pounds of Kerosene ignited as the wings and part of the fuselage fell onto the small Scottish town of Lockerbie. All on board were killed; so too were 11 residents of Lockerbie – 270 innocent people murdered by a terrorist bomb.

Twenty-three years later, the scene changes to a small house on the outskirts of Tripoli in Libya, where the only man found guilty of causing those events lies helpless in bed. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, whom the world knows as the Lockerbie bomber, is dying of prostate cancer. For the first, last and only time he is about to give a television interview about his case – and he is to tell Al Jazeera that new evidence will prove that he was wrongly convicted. 

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi talks to Al Jazeera from his home in Tripoli, where he is dying from prostate cancer

The Lockerbie disaster was Europe’s worst terrorist outrage – more civilians died than in any other attack before 9/11. It has also become the most infamous. The events of that night, the painstaking police forensic investigation that followed, the identification of al-Megrahi and Libya as the likely culprits, his eventual trial and conviction in Holland, the overwhelming sense of relief that justice had been done felt by many relatives of the victims, and the controversy surrounding his subsequent return to Libya on compassionate grounds – all of these things have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the years.

As has been the growing concern, felt by some, that al-Megrahi may have been wrongly accused. 

This film, Lockerbie: Case Closed, will give hope to all those who believe that the Libyan is an innocent man and not the mass murderer that the prosecution claimed at his trial.

It reveals the hitherto secret assessment of the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission (SCCRC) – a quasi-public body in Scotland that is independent from the courts and the government – which has examined the case against al-Megrahi in detail. Its report, which has never been published, raises numerous reasons for concern about a possible miscarriage of justice – especially the status of the testimony given by one Tony Gauci, a Maltese shop owner and the prosecution’s main witness. He identified al-Megrahi as a man who had bought clothing and an umbrella from him on December 7, 1988 – remnants of which were later recovered from among debris from the disaster scene and which, according to investigators, had been in the same suitcase as the bomb.

As the film shows, the SCCRC found a number of reasons to seriously question this identification and Gauci’s account about events on December 7 – the only date that al-Megrahi could have been in Malta to make such purchases. The report also raises concerns about the legitimacy of the formal identification process, in which Gauci picked al-Megrahi out from a line-up. The commission found that Gauci had seen al-Megrahi’s photo in a magazine article identifying him as a possible suspect before the parade took place. The SCCRC also found that Scottish police knew that Gauci was interested in financial rewards, despite maintaining that Gauci had shown no such interest. Gauci reportedly picked up a $2m US government reward for his role in the case. Under Scottish law, witnesses cannot be paid for their testimony.

Prior to his return home, al-Megrahi had been seeking an appeal against his conviction. Had that hearing ever taken place then the SCCRC’s conclusions and their evidence would have come to light. On that basis alone, the Libyan would have almost certainly walked from court a free man. However, the film also reveals the results of new scientific tests that comprehensively undermine the validity of the most crucial piece of forensic evidence linking the bombing to Libya – a fragment of electronic timer found embedded in the shredded remains of a shirt that was supposedly bought from Gauci’s shop by al-Megrahi. The timer, said the prosecution, was identical to ones sold to Libyan intelligence by Swiss manufacturers. But as the new tests show, it was not identical and it now seems that British government scientists knew this all along.

John Ashton, who has been investigating the case for nearly 20 years, including time spent as part of al-Megrahi’s defence team, has written a book on the affair with al-Megrahi. In the Al Jazeera film he says:

“The Lockerbie disaster was Europe’s worst terrorist attack. More Americans died in that attack than in any other terrorist event before 9/11. It’s also Britain’s worst miscarriage of justice, the wrong man was convicted and the real killers are still out there.”

Lockerbie: Case Closed was produced and directed by William Cran and Christopher Jeans and is a Network Features production for Al Jazeera. It is narrated by Sean Barrett.