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To preserve a 31-year-old lie, Britain is ready to tarnish Scottish justice

A member of the public visits the Lockerbie memorial on 17 December 2008 in Lockerbie, Scotland [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)]
A member of the public visits the Lockerbie memorial on 17 December 2008 in Lockerbie, Scotland [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)]

The third appeal hearing for the Lockerbie bombing's only conviction ended last Thursday before Scotland's highest court. The five judges have now retired to deliberate their verdict. Presiding Lord Justice General Colin Sutherland, Scotland's most senior judge, said that the panel will deliver its written opinion "as soon as it possibly can" after three days of submissions.

In 2001, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December, 1988. The blast killed all 270 people on board. However, the verdict has been challenged by Al-Megrahi, his family, some of the victims' families and the legal community in Scotland itself.

In March this year, a Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) permitted Al-Megrahi's family appeal, posthumously, before the country's highest court. The SCCRC cited a possible "miscarriage of justice" in the first trial. In particular, it pointed out that the guilty ruling was "unreasonable" and the British government withheld evidence from Al-Megrahi's defence team that might have proved his innocence from the start. Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi died of cancer at his home in Libya in 2012.

Claire Mitchell, QC, acting for Al-Megrahi's family, said that the way that he had been identified in the first trial was "highly prejudicial". A Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, was the prosecution's star witness in the 2001 trial. He identified Al-Megrahi from a photograph as the person who bought the clothes from his shop in which the bomb, it was alleged, was wrapped and put in a suitcase that Al-Megrahi passed onto the luggage feeder of the doomed flight. However, Gauci's testimony has been regarded as untrustworthy since it emerged that he received money in return for his testimony. The British government again withheld documents that the defence believes could help prove Al-Megrahi's innocence.

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What is at stake here is not only the truth about Britain's deadliest terror attack, but also the reputation of the Scottish justice system. When Al-Megrahi was released from jail on compassionate grounds in 2009, many believe that Kenny MacAskill, who was Scotland's justice minister at the time, would never have given the go ahead if he had had the slightest doubt that the guilty verdict was beyond any reasonable doubt. Many observers also believed that the British government would not have allowed Al-Megrahi's release if they were certain that he was behind the bombing.

Importantly, families of British victims also believed that the Libyan was wrongly convicted for the atrocity. In fact, they went as far as campaigning for a retrial. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed on the flight, had for years believed in Al-Megrahi's innocence. Swire even helped the Libyan's family to bring about the third appeal in the case. "I'm delighted that the case has been referred back to the Appeal Court," he said after the SCCRC decision in March.

The only party that still wants to maintain the 31-year-old narrative about the Lockerbie bombing seem to be the British government. It has, again, withheld documents from the defence and still refuses to hold a public inquiry into the tragedy despite repeated requests to do so. It looks as if the government in Westminster does not want the truth to come out, even if that means tarnishing the Scottish justice system. However, it now it looks as if the government has a new, unlikely, ally in this matter.

Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) has defunded the case for no obvious reason. By cutting funding to the defence team, the GNA is breaking Libyan law that obliges it to help citizens facing legal issues abroad. This suggests that it either approves of what Westminster is doing, or is under pressure from the British to drop its backing for the appeal.

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Moreover, the GNA knows very well that the Lockerbie bombing is not just a case of a misdemeanour by a Libyan citizen in another country. Lockerbie is, in fact, a national issue for all Libyans, because they were all, in effect, punished for it collectively by the imposition of UN resolutions and sanctions. The latter, through Resolution 883, for example, imposed a freeze on assets held abroad, a ban on sales of certain equipment and a ban on all commercial flights into and out of the country.

Between 1992 and 1999, thousands of Libyans who had to travel abroad, including diplomats, were forced to take dangerous overland journeys to Tunisia or Egypt, or go to Malta by sea in order to catch flights to their destinations further afield. Foreigners visiting Libya had to endure the same procedure in reverse.

Furthermore, Al-Megrahi's defence team are confident that their appeal this time has all the ingredients necessary for a successful outcome. The leading defence lawyer, Aamer Anwar, told me that his team mounted a "robust appeal".

In the absence of GNA funding, Anwar was forced to launch some online fundraising to meet part of his expenses which have been mounting for the past six years since he first took up the case. He suspects that the GNA was put under pressure from the British government to steer away from the case and that Boris Johnson, when he was foreign minister, discussed Lockerbie with GNA officials when he visited Libya twice in 2017. Anwar is pursuing a Freedom of Information Act request about these visits. He also told me that his legal team in Libya has been instructed to file a case against the GNA for its refusal to fund the Megrahi appeal.

If nothing else, the appeal has once again rallied many Libyans around the case as a national cause. This is evident by the hundreds of comments on social media which generally shame the GNA and accuse it of betraying the entire country, not just Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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