The Lockerbie bomber I know
Two years ago Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was controversially released on the grounds he was about to die. But this shadowy figure has survived to become a pawn in the Libyan conflict. John Ashton, who has long believed in his innocence, describes the man behind the myth
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It's an anniversary that the Scottish justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, will have long dreaded. Two years ago tomorrow MacAskill granted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, AKA "the Lockerbie bomber", compassionate release from the life sentence he was serving for the murder of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing. MacAskill had been advised that terminal cancer was likely to end the Libyan's life within the following three months: he had, in short, been "sent home to die". As Megrahi's recent appearance at a pro-Gaddafi rally reminded us, he has not stuck to the script. The anniversary presents sections of the media with another opportunity to splutter its outrage at MacAskill's decision, and to resurrect the theory that it was driven by backroom deals rather than medical evidence. More seriously, for many of the relatives of the Lockerbie dead it adds an appalling insult to their already grievous injury. But Megrahi's survival, and the Lockerbie case in general, now has far wider significance. For western governments struggling to justify why Libya should be singled out for enforced regime change, the issue has become a godsend. In recent weeks both Barack Obama and William Hague have tried to boost wilting public support for the war by highlighting Gaddafi's responsibility for the 1988 attack. Libya's government-in-waiting, the National Transitional Council, has weighed in too. Its leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, claimed in February that Gaddafi personally ordered the bombing, and its London PR company, Bell-Pottinger, followed up Hague's comments by circulating a claim by a leading cancer specialist that MacAskill's decision was based on flawed medical advice. There is, though, another view that is shared by many who have scrutinised the Lockerbie case. They hold that the true scandal was not Megrahi's release, but his 2001 conviction. The Justice for Megrahi campaign, founded in 2008, counts among its signatories Dr Jim Swire and Rev John Mosey, each of whom lost a daughter in the bombing, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Another signatory, Scottish QC Ian Hamilton, last year blogged: "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted." I go further than those lawyers: I am as certain as I can be that Megrahi is innocent. For three years until his return to Libya I worked as a researcher alongside his legal team and since then have been writing a book with him. I have read all his case files and have visited him many times, both in prison and in Tripoli. I'm one of a handful of people familiar with both the man and the evidence that convicted him. It requires a book to explain all the flaws in that evidence. In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) granted Megrahi an appeal, having identified six possible grounds for overturning the conviction. Among these, remarkably, was that the original judgment, delivered by three Scottish judges at a specially constructed court in the Netherlands, was unreasonable. Four of the other grounds concerned the Crown's most important witness, a Maltese shopkeeper called Tony Gauci, in whose shop Megrahi allegedly bought the clothes that ended up in the same suitcase as the bomb. In 1991 he picked out Megrahi from a lineup of photos. The SCCRC discovered that before doing so he had expressed an interest in receiving a reward, and that after Megrahi's conviction the Scottish police secretly approached the US Department of Justice to secure a $2m payment. Gauci's evidence was, in any case, highly unreliable. His descriptions of the clothes purchaser all suggested the man was around 50 years old, 6ft tall and with dark skin, whereas Megrahi was 36, is 5ft 8in and has light skin. There is also a wealth of circumstantial evidence that suggests Lockerbie was the work of Iranian proxies, rather than Libya. (Although the Libyan government formally accepted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2004, it made clear that it was doing so only to rid the country of UN sanctions.) The final reason for my near certaintly about Megrahi is my knowledge of the man himself. Who, then, is he if not the cartoon terrorist of contemporary mythology? Few have any idea: he opted not to give evidence at trial, and has barely spoken to the media. He was born in Tripoli in 1952, into poverty that was typical of the times in Libya. One of eight siblings, his family shared a house with two others, and his mother supplemented his father's customs officer's income by sewing for neighbours. As a young child he was plagued by chest problems, for which he received daily vitamin supplements at his Unesco-administered school. His main passion was football, which continues to absorb him. After finishing school in 1970, he briefly trained as a marine engineer at Rumney Technical College in Cardiff, hoping to become a ship's captain or navigator. When his eyesight proved too poor, he dropped out and returned to Tripoli, where he trained as a flight dispatcher for the state-owned Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA). Having completed his training and gained his dispatcher's licence in the US, he was gradually promoted to head of operations at Tripoli airport. Keen to improve his education, he studied geography at the University of Benghazi. He came top in his year and was invited to join the teaching staff on the promise that he could study for a master's degree in climatology in the US. When the promise proved hollow, he opted to boost his salary by returning to LAA. In 1986 he became a partner in a small company called ABH and was temporarily appointed LAA's head of airline security. The following year he became part-time coordinator of the Libyan Centre for Strategic Studies. His Scottish prosecutors aimed to prove that these roles were cover for his activities as a senior agent for the Libyan intelligence service, the JSO. Megrahi maintains that his only involvement with the JSO came during his 12-month tenure as head of airline security when he was seconded to the organisation to oversee the training of some of its personnel for security positions within the airline. There is ample documentary evidence to support his claim that ABH was a legitimate trading company whose main business was the purchase of spares for LAA aircraft, often in breach of US sanctions. He admits that he sometimes travelled on a false passport, but insists that it was issued to give him cover for his sanctions-busting activities; unlike his true passport, it did not betray his airline background. Megrahi says that it came as a complete surprise when, in November 1991, he and his former LAA colleague Lamin Fhimah were charged with the bombing (Fhimah was found not guilty). Megrahi also maintains that it was their decision to stand trial and that they were not ordered to by their government. He was repeatedly warned that he was unlikely to receive a fair trial, but believed he would be acquitted. During his decade in prison his good manners and cooperative behaviour earned him the respect of the officers. He bonded with them through football, joining in their three-a-side matches at HMP Barlinnie and bantering about Glasgow's Old Firm rivalry. Perversely, he supported Rangers, but his favourite player was Celtic's Henrik Larsson. He was cheered by visits from well-known figures, most notably Nelson Mandela, and by hundreds of letters of support. In 2005 he was transferred to a low-security wing of HMP Gateside in Greenock, where he was placed among long-term prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. He was soon accepted by both inmates and officers, one of whom volunteered to me: "We all know he didn't do it." I would visit him there in one of the tiny rooms set aside for legal visits. He always arrived with a bundle of papers and would then take me through fine points of evidential detail. He was demanding, but friendly and humorous. He was sustained by the support of his family and by regular prayer; like most Libyans of his generation he is a devout Muslim. He abhors violent extremism and was reduced to tears by the 9/11 attacks. We were optimistic that his appeal would succeed, but its progress was glacial. In autumn 2008, with the first hearing still six months away, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He had always dreamed of clearing his name and returning to his family, but eventually felt compelled to choose between the two. Although the compassionate release decision carried no legal preconditions, he knew that abandoning the appeal would smooth the process. No longer able to make his case in court, he asked me to write his story so he could make it to the public. Writing the book required numerous visits to Tripoli, where he received me warmly in the home he shares with his wife and four sons in a middle-class suburb. His illness limited our sessions to a couple of hours. He would check every word I'd written for accuracy and was insistent that I include the case for both sides and not shy away from awkward facts. He repeatedly told me: "I understand that people will judge me with their hearts, but I ask them to please also judge me with their heads." His reception, on his return to Tripoli, was portrayed as a triumphant official welcome, but, as a WikiLeaks cable revealed, the Libyan authorities limited the crowd to 200, with thousands of supporters and the international media kept away. A few months later the Sunday Times reported that, at the time he was convicted, he had $1.8m in a Swiss bank account. In fact the account had been dormant since 1993, when it had a balance of $23,000. This year the same paper reported a claim by NTC leader Abdel-Jalil that Megrahi had blackmailed Gaddafi to secure his release from prison "by threatening to expose the dictator's role" in the bombing. Had he done so he would have severely jeopardised both his chance of freedom and the safety of his family in Libya. Although he responded to such misreporting with a faint smile and a roll of the eyes, it hurt him deeply that anyone could believe him guilty of murder. One story was rather easier to refute: Sky News's October 2009 report that he had died. By chance I was with him that day. It was almost impossible to talk as every few seconds he took a call from a distressed relative. When I last saw him, in September 2010, he visited me at my hotel. It was the only time I saw him among ordinary Libyans. Again we were repeatedly interrupted, this time by strangers thanking him, not for an act of terrorism, but for sacrificing his liberty for the good of the nation. His decision to stand trial helped free the country from UN sanctions that imposed 12 years of collective punishment on the assumption of his guilt. We now know that that assumption was based on evidence that was, at best, flimsy and, at worst, fabricated. His appearance at the rally in a wheelchair probably won't silence the conspiracy theorists who claim he is living the life of Riley. The fact that he has made it this far is partly down to the superior medical care he receives. But I believe it's as much to do with his will to live and the knowledge that every day survived is a fragment of justice reclaimed.
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