Million-dollar reward for Malta Lockerbie witness was unfair to Libyan accused

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi may have been victim of miscarriage of justice and his family can appeal his conviction over Pan-Am bombing, Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission says

Tony Gauci
Tony Gauci

A review commission in Scotland has declared that reward money paid to Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci by the US Department of State as the key witness in the Lockerbie case, has meant that the man incarcerated for the bombing of the Pan-Am flight was denied a fair trial.

Ali Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was a Libyan intelligence service (JSO) officer, working in Malta’s Libyan Arab Airlines office when he was arrested on suspicion of being one of two bombers of the flight that exploded in 1988 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

The bomb that destroyed PA 103 had been contained in radio-cassette player, inside a Samsonite suitcase which also contained items that Anthony Gauci, the late owner of Mary’s Shop in Sliema, described as having sold to a Libyan man before Christmas 1988.

Megrahi was identified as the purchaser of the items in the bomb suitcase, based upon Gauci’s evidence that the purchaser of the items closely resembled Megrahi, on 7 December 1988, a date on which Megrahi was in Malta, staying in a hotel close to Mary’s House.

Gauci is believed to have been paid some US$3 million to keep up his version of events. He died in 2016.

The Commission now believes that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred by reason of an unreasonable verdict and non-disclosure of evidence.

“At any trial, before the case may proceed for determination by the fact-finder, normally the jury, the court must be satisfied that there is a sufficiency of evidence which, if believed, would entitle the jury to return a guilty verdict. The Commission remains of the view, based upon the evidence that the trial court accepted in this case, that there was sufficient evidence in law to convict Mr Megrahi. The wholly circumstantial case against Mr Megrahi, as accepted, supported the conclusion that Mr Megrahi was guilty of the murders for which he was charged.”

That conclusion, taken with Gauci’s evidence that Megrahi closely resembled the purchaser, enabled the trial court to infer that Megrahi was the purchaser.

But the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission now says that no reasonable trial court could have accepted that Megrahi was identified as the purchaser.

“Because the court’s specific conclusion that he was the purchaser was integral to the court’s ultimate conclusion that he was guilty of the murders libelled, the Commission believes that, notwithstanding that the remaining chapters of evidence pointed to the involvement of operators of the Libyan state in the execution of the crime, a miscarriage of justice may have occurred because no reasonable trial court, relying on the evidence led at trial, could have held the case against Megrahi was proved beyond reasonable doubt.”

The Commission said the Crown ought to have disclosed to the defence a statement and a police report about Gauci’s possession of photographs of Megrahi before the identification parade, because that information might have materially weakened the Crown’s reliance on Gauci’s I.D. parade and dock resemblance identifications of Megrahi as the purchaser.

“The Commission considers that the Crown’s failure to disclose the information in question deprived Mr Megrahi a real chance of an acquittal.

“The Commission also considers that the Crown’s failure to disclose the information about the reward money to be paid to Mr Gauci under a scheme administered by the US Department of State bolsters its conclusion that Mr Megrahi was denied a fair trial.”

Megrahi had abandoned an appeal against the Lockerbie conviction, genuinely believing that his chances of being returned to Libya on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed by cancer rested upon him dropping his appeal. Megrahi’s source of information for this belief was a member of the Libyan government under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

How Pan-Am plane exploded

The timer used to trigger the bomb was an MST-13 timer that a Swiss firm, MEBO, produced; MEBO had supplied a substantial quantity of such timers to Libya.

Megrahi had an association with one of the partners in MEBO, Edwin Bollier, and with various members of the JSO and Libyan military who purchased MST-13 timers from Mr Bollier; and he had, along with another man, formed a company that leased premises from MEBO and intended to do business with MEBO.

On 21 December 1988 the bomb suitcase was carried on Air Malta Flight KM 180 from Luqa Airport to Frankfurt (KM 180), was transferred to Pan Am Flight 103A from Frankfurt to Heathrow (PA 103A), a feeder flight for PA 103, and was carried to Heathrow, where it was transferred to PA 103; there was a plain inference from the documentary record that an unidentified and unaccompanied bag travelled on KM 180 and was loaded at Frankfurt on to PA 103A.

On 20 December 1988 Megrahi flew into Malta, travelling on a passport in a false name; he stayed overnight in a hotel in Sliema, registering there under a false name; on the morning of 21 December 1988 he was at Luqa Airport when the baggage for KM 180 was being checked in, immediately before flying to Libya.

The flight exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie while en route from London to New York.

On 31 January 2001, Megrahi was convicted of the murders of the 243 passengers and the 16 crew on board PA 103 from London to New York, and 11 residents of Lockerbie, on 21 December 1988.

Megrahi appealed his conviction. On 14 March 2002 the High Court refused his appeal.

In September 2003, Megrahi asked the Commission to review his conviction. On 28 June 2007 the Commission referred his case to the High Court for determination. On 17 August 2009 Megrahi abandoned his appeal. On 20 August 2009 the Scottish Ministers approved his release on compassionate grounds and he was released from prison. He returned to Libya, where he died on 20 May 2012.

In July 2017, the SCCRC accepted an application for a full review.

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