By Abdel Bari Atwan
In December 2007 I went to Greenock prison outside Glasgow to interview Abdul Basset Ali Al Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.
Given that Al Megrahi was considered such a dangerous prisoner, I was surprised by how few security measures were in place. I had expected to be searched and questioned on arrival, but instead I was simply escorted through to the visiting area where Al Megrahi was waiting for me.
For the next three hours, I hardly spoke as the man gave vent to his feelings. He alternated between anger and despair and frequently broke down in tears. He missed his family and bitterly lamented that his future had been stolen from him.
The same anger and bitterness is, I am sure, shared by the families of the bomb’s 270 victims.
There was something compelling about Al Megrahi's impassioned claims of innocence, which he had steadfastly maintained over the years since his conviction in 2001. He said that had he carried out the atrocity, he would have killed himself "in shame". He first appealed against the judgment in 2002. Dr Hans Koechler, who attended the original trial as a UN observer, told reporters that he was certain this was "a spectacular miscarriage of justice". When I visited Al Megrahi, he was preparing for a second appeal. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had granted him leave to do so in the belief that he may indeed have been wrongly convicted. He produced a sheaf of documents and showed me how whole paragraphs, even pages, had been obliterated with black marker pen. This, he explained, was the CIA evidence that had been used against him. His lawyer had been refused sight of the unedited cable messages (regarding interviews with Libyan double-agent Abdul Majid Giaka), and therefore denied possible evidence that might have exonerated Al Megrahi. In late 2007, several developments in Al Megrahi's favour had occurred, including the following: in September, one of the key witnesses in the case, Swiss engineer Ulrich Lumpert, walked into a Zurich police station and confessed that he had lied about a timing device used in the explosion; in October, Al Megrahi's lawyers had discovered that another key witness, Tony Gauci, had allegedly been paid at least $3 million (Dh11 million) by UK and US intelligence services to say that Al Megrahi bought clothes found in the suitcase that housed the bomb in his shop in Malta; and at least two forensic experts who testified against Al Megrahi were found to have links to intelligence agencies. Professor Robert Black is the academic who established the framework by which Al Megrahi was initially tried in the Netherlands. He had been to visit Al Megrahi two months before me and his thoughts, shared on his blog, echoed mine exactly: "As a result of today's meeting I am satisfied that not only was there a wrongful conviction, but the victim of it was an innocent man". Although the appeal was supposed to take place in early 2008, Al Megrahi had to go through several more 'procedural hearings' after my visit. It seemed to many, myself included, that delaying tactics were being used in an effort to break the man and prevent inconvenient facts from coming to light. Al Megrahi never got to go through with his appeal. In October 2008 he was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer and in August this year, having been given three months to live, he abandoned his legal action – perhaps in exchange for freedom, which he was granted on August 20. A great deal of mystery surrounds Al Megrahi's release "on compassionate grounds" by Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill. Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi might have wished it to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution and his son, Saif Al Islam, claimed that he had secured Al Megrahi's freedom in exchange for "trade deals". At the Rothschild family's villa on Corfu, a gathering of 'highly influential' people just a week before Al Megrahi's release included Saif and UK Business secretary Peter Mandelson. Let us not forget that Libya possesses 41.5 billion barrels of oil reserves and earns about $40 billion per annum in oil revenue. 'Normalisation' of relations between the UK and Libya could open the door to many lucrative business opportunities. Al Megrahi's decision to drop his appeal ensures that the culpability of the UK and US intelligence services will remain hidden – at least for the time being. Just as they misinformed their governments about Saddam Hussain's weapons of mass destruction, leading to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, they played a crucial role in destroying an almost certainly innocent man and ensuring that those who really did carry out this atrocity remain immune from prosecution. That leads us to the final, unanswered, question. Who did plant the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103? The Sunday Mail interviewed an ex-CIA analyst, Robert Baer, who stated that the agency had always known the plot originated in Iran. The BBC's Panorama team is putting together a documentary based on the same claim. It is doubtful that Al Megrahi will live to see his name cleared, although he has vowed to fight on. If he is innocent, he will enjoy his last days with a clear conscience in the company of his beloved 88-year-old mother and surrounded by his family, who never once doubted him. Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.
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