Why Is There Such Uncritical Acceptance of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s Conviction in the US?


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Adbelbaset al-Megrahi walked free yesterday, having been freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish executive. The US is outraged, as, understandably are many families of victims of the Lockerbie terrorist attack, and everyone, including Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, questioned the taste of the hero’s welcome afforded Megrahi in Tripoli. The Libyans have pointed out that the welcome was not an official one but that’s hardly going to convince the critics. But what few people have mentioned is the fact that those that welcomed Megrahi were not necessarily gloating over the murder of 270 people but because they believe that Megrahi is innocent. And they’re not the only ones.

There are accusations flying about, most notably that Megrahi’s release was part of a deal the UK struck with Libya to further open the country up to British oil companies. And Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who holidayed with deputy PM (and former EU trade commissioner) Peter Mandelson on Corfu last month, says that’s exactly what happened. Whitehall firmly denies this, leaving us in the invidious position of deciding whether we should believe the son of Muammar Gadaffi or a New Labour government. There are those who rightly point out the shabby behaviour of the British government in all this, who have been able to maintain their good relations with Libya while letting the SNP-run Scottish executive take the flak. Then there are others who suspect that the compassionate release was timed to avoid uncomfortable truths emerging in Megrahi’s second appeal.

I’m not sure if I completely agree with the matter of compassionate release in cases of such gravity, but, as the victim’s father Dr Jim Swire says, that’s neither here nor there because, like him, I am convinced that Megrahi had nothing to do with the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103. His conviction rests on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence and on the word of one man, the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who claims to have sold Megrahi the clothing that was wrapped round the bomb. Gauci was interviewed by police 17 times and gave conflicting evidence on a number of occasions. It is also alleged he was offered a $2m reward in return for giving evidence, and that he was coached by police, and wined and dined by them in advance of giving his testimony.

Megrahi’s defence also argues that the forensic tests on the circuit board of the timer were incomplete, relying on visual evidence rather than on gaseous swabs. The credibility of the three forensic scientists employed by the prosecution is also in doubt, not least because one of them, Dr Thomas Hayes, was involved in the framing of the Maguire Seven in 1976. The defence also says it has a secret document that disputes prosecution claims that Megrahi bought a digital timer from a Swiss company, Mebo and then planted the bomb on a flight from Malta to Germany. In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced there was ‘no reasonable basis’ to place Megrahi in Malta at the time in question. It has admitted new evidence to allow a second appeal to go ahead, which Megrahi withdrew – needlessly – last week. Its 800-page report has never been published.

The US and British prosecutors originally targeted Mohammed Abu Talb, an associate of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was allegedly contracted by the Iranian government to blow up the plane in retaliation for the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the US navy cruiser Vincennes five months previously. But it seems realpolitik intervened during the 1991 Gulf War when the US declined to antagonise Tehran so as to be able to use its airspace during the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The focus then turned to Libya, none too implausibly, given Muammar Gaddafi’s deep enmity towards the US and his previous sponsorship of terrorism, including the LaBella nightclub bombing in Berlin in 1986.

Gaddafi kept Magrahi and fellow suspect Lamin Khalifah Fahima under house arrest for several years until, after protracted negotiations with the US and the UK – and UN sanction – he handed them over to Scottish prosecutors in the Netherlands, where they stood trial, and Magrahi was convicted, in 2000. Since then Libya has gradually eased itself out of its pariah-state status, agreed to scrap its weapons of mass destruction, signed successions of trade deals with Western investors and become Italy’s de facto immigration policeman in return for ‘reparations’ for Italy’s colonial past in the country. The fact that Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003 is uncritically accepted as the cornerstone for the soundness of the case against them, as if the word of a dictator who brutally suppresses dissent at home and who sponsors terrorism abroad would ever be worth anything. The Gaddafi regime has done well out of its co-operation with the Lockerbie prosecution but it now seems to be having second-thoughts with Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem telling the BBC in 2004 that the admission was made – and $2.15billion dollars of compensation to victims’ families paid – as the ‘price for peace’. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was the convenient patsy that took the fall for all this.

The case for Megrahi’s innocence is not some obscure 9/11 ‘truther’-style conspiracy theory. UN observer Hans Köchler questioned the conduction of the trial, detecting political motives. Former Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell has long proclaimed Megrahi’s evidence as have two British parents of victims, Dr Jim Swire and Martin Cadman, both of whom described Megrahi’s trial as a farce. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission saw sufficient irregularities in the trial to allow a second appeal while a retired Scottish police chief has testified that evidence was fabricated by the CIA. All of this points to a strong suspicion that the compassionate release was designed to sidestep uncomfortable disclosures in the appeal. The evidence to hand is almost overwhelmingly in favour of describing the conviction of Abdelbashet al-Megrahi as a miscarriage of justice of such a scale that it makes the framing of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven seem minor indeed.

But all of the above either falls on deaf ears in the US or is never reported. Washington’s protestations have been matched by victims’ families, with Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora calling Megrahi’s release a ‘disgrace’ and ‘vile’. There has been further outcry from newspaper editorialists and from commenters on blogs. But references to questions over the soundness of the conviction are few and far between. One can forgive victims’ families their bitterness – and Megrahi, while maintaining his innocence, has done that – and one can also forgive the average American their ignorance, considering the other side of the case is so poorly reported in the media over there. One might cynically point out that a substantial number of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in September 11th and that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in March 2003, but my intention is not facile Yank-bashing. The US media are however culpable of a shocking irresponsibility in their coverage of the affair from start to finish. One might expect nothing less from the likes of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, whose stock in trade is lies and libel. But the behaviour of other media outlets, both old (The New York Times, Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune) and new (Huffington Post) has been exceptionally remiss with all the self-righteous editorialising completely ignoring the strong evidence there is for a miscarriage of justice.

Instead Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune says ‘Libyans celebrate mass murder’, a pundit on CNN wonders if the Libyans who cheered Megrahi’s return home were terrorists. The Philadelphia Inquirer says Megrahi showed no compassion to his victims. The paper of record says questions arise after Megrahi’s release but, of course, these questions pertain only to a possible deal done between London and Tripoli. Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is similarly coy (or ignorant) about the dubiousness of the conviction, while her colleague Eric Tarloff breaktakingly says ‘Assuming Megrahi received a fair trial — and I have read nothing to indicate otherwise — a life sentence seems the minimal appropriate punishment for a crime of such enormity.’ If Tarloff has failed to read anything that casts doubt on whether Megrahi received a fair trial, you have to question his fitness to hold a press card. The Boston Globe similarly omits to mention the flimsiness of the evidence against Megrahi. Even left-wing media are reticent on the matter, with no mention even of Megrahi’s release to be found in The Nation, Mother Jones or In These Times. Only the New York Times’ Lede blog gives any airing to questions raised in the media the other side of the Atlantic while the Daily Kos wonders, tentatively if there might be something wrong with the conviction.

So why is the US media reporting the story – and opinionating on it – with an almost unanimous disregard for the facts and with moral cowardice, as if questioning Megrahi’s guilt would in some ways be an insult to the victims and their families? Why is the US media so uncritical and supine in its acceptance of what is clearly a flawed judgement? Why is it abdicating its responsibility to investigate a story that is crying out for media attention? It proves that David Simon’s fears of a compliant, unquestioning media that doesn’t do its job properly is already with us. My suspicion is that the US media and those outraged by Megrahi’s release are willfully deluding themselves, repressing unwelcome truths in order to facilitate a narrative, to bring ‘closure’ to the bereaved, who are, understandably never going to recover from what was a terrible loss. An article in the Chicago Tribune says that Megrahi’s release ‘erases some of the victims’ closure’. Larry Wild, whose stepdaughter Miriam Woolf died in the bombing says ‘we thought we had judicial closure’. It’s natural that grieving relatives should feel this way but the fact that this ‘closure’ was provided by Megrahi’s dubious conviction does not make it right. Some of the US families accept that Megrahi was probably not ultimately responsible but they are still happy to accept his conviction, for want of a bigger fish in the net. In this psychodrama, Megrahi functions, both literally and metaphorically, as a scapegoat, and his role as the villain of the piece has symbolic value even for those who suspect he might not actually be the right guy. And the US media feeds all this. The role of responsible news-reporting is not to provide comfort and succour, not even to those who, like the families who lost loved ones in the Lockerbie bombing; its role is to investigate and query when there are reasonable grounds for doubt. The case against Megrahi is thin, the evidence so circumstantial that it would probably fail to meet probable cause for prosecution in a US court.

Relatives of British victims have been much more objective and clear-eyed in their reaction to Megrahi’s conviction. This is understandable, as unlike American families, they have more immediate access to the investigation and have been able to follow it more closely. The fact that it was a Scottish court that produced the miscarriage of justice also gives them an extra vested interest in seeing something more than summary justice done. But the intransigence of some American families, while understandable, is harmful. Jim Swire says he has been unable to have a meaningful conversation with the US families since the 2000 trial and he also says the families were groomed, prepped and isolated by US authorities throughout the trial. Martin Cadman said last week that American families convinced of Megrahi’s guilt need to ‘get real’ – a harsh comment but Cadman, like Swire and Rev John Mosey, knows that the show trial has deepened rather than assuaged the pain and hurt caused by the attack. Swire has been said to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome by Lord Fraser, the Lord Advocate who oversaw the Camp Zeist trial, an outrageous smear on someone who rightly questions the conviction, and who is supported by many top Scottish legal minds, including Robert Black, who first proposed holding the trial in the Netherlands.

Lost in the diplomatic outrage, the headlines and the motives of Libya – which, again, are not implausible – is a simple matter of legal rectitude. Libya may or may not have been responsible for the attack – its previous admissions of responsibility are not to be taken at face value – and Megrahi is probably no angel either, as few people working for the Libyan secret service (or any secret for that matter) are. The problem is one of due process and the irregularities are so glaring that Scotland’s own legal review board has called the conviction into question. Convictions can only be secured on available evidence and testimony, which, in this case, are flimsy to threadbare. We mightn’t like it (or like Gaddafi’s squalid, brutal regime) but it is highly unlikely that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi planted the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103. That the US media is failing to report this side of the story is a dereliction of journalistic duty.

Photo of Adbelbaset al-Megrahi courtesy of the Sunday Times

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6 Responses

  1. petey

    August 24, 2009 1:07 am

    i’m an american who had read this:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n12/mile01_.html. but there won’t be many of us. in fact, you’ve answered your own question: “It proves that David Simon’s fears of a compliant, unquestioning media that doesn’t do its job properly is already with us.” it’s a fond idea that the US media exists for any reason other than to serve as a megaphone for any administration’s interests. this has been true since the reagan years.

  2. seanachie

    August 24, 2009 1:58 pm

    Petey, thanks for the link. For some reason it had passed me by.

    Hugh, I agree about Carriles, though to be fair, the Bush administration’s Justice department had urged the Texas court to keep him in prison. This, of course, may just have been a stance taken for decorum’s sake. It’s also ironic that William Calley finally apologised this weekend for his part in the slaughter of hundreds of Vietnamese at My Lai. Would that the US media have expressed similar outrage for such tardy remorse as they did at Megrahi’s release.

  3. D_D

    August 24, 2009 4:35 pm

    Lieutenant’s Calley’s case exemplifies the hypocracy of the US outrage against the Scottish release. I was amazed to be reminded in a book review in Saturday’s ‘Irish Times’ that Lieutenant Calley had been PARDONED by a previous US administration. The review speaks of up to 500 civilians nassacred at Mi Lai.

    This very administration has refused to follow up with prosecutons revelations about torture by US personnell .

    The FBI letter is breathtakingly arrogant.

  4. seanachie

    August 24, 2009 5:15 pm


    A poster elsewhere pointed out that the Huffington Post did in fact carry a piece criticising the American media’s incuriosity at the soundness of the conviction. Apologies to the Huff Post.