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CounterPunch Diary

The Frame-Up

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

"Was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits?” Not too many guesses as to which oil company is under discussion: BP, current epitome of Big Oil at its foulest. But what populist rabble-rousers were posing the question? Look no further than that errand boy of finance capital, New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer.

On July 13, under Schumer’s senatorial letterhead he and his fellow New York senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, plus Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, widening the indictment of BP from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe with the accusation that in 2007, in pursuit of  valuable oil leases in Libya, it had twisted the arm of the British Government to arrange the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi,  convicted in the bombing of Panam flight 103 over the Scottish village of Lockerbie in 1988, with 281 dead.

“We write,” the senators informed Clinton, “to urge the State Department to fully investigate the disturbing news reports linking BP to the deal that allowed for the release of convicted Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The information that such an investigation would yield is important to fully determine the legitimacy of the decision to release this mass murderer… As you may know, in 2007, BP and the Libyan government agreed upon a $900 million oil exploration deal, following two visits to Libya over the course of three years by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was reported in September of last year that BP communicated to the British government concerns that possible delays in the release of al-Megrahi could throw the oil deal into jeopardy.”

This coming  July 29 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Gillibrand and Menendez serve, is scheduled to hold hearings into the circumstances of Megrahi’s release. Already the four senators have elicited a session with Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, during his recent visit to Washington DC,  to discuss the affair. Cameron swiftly passed the buck to the Scottish authorities, who actually okayed the release of Megrahi last August on the “compassionate” grounds that he had prostate cancer and had only three weeks to live. Megrahi, safely back in Libya remains in fine fettle.

For the four senators, tv footage and news headlines of them flailing away at BP, and odious Libya, were opportunities not to be missed. BP  freely admits that amid the 2007 negotiations with Libya –– the company had told the British government that failure to release Megrahi under a Prisoner Transfer Agreement would be a big problem, but insists it played no role in the “compassionate release” – not a formal PTA —  which was the sole decision of the Scottish authorities. Obama, who was very muted at the time of the compassionate release, said last week merely that it had been a "misguided decision" by Scottish authorities and that “most Americans were "surprised, disappointed and angry" about the decision to let al Megrahi go.

It’s hard to conceive of anything surpassing this merry-go-round of grandstanding and self-serving hypocrisy, with the possible exception of BP, which freely admits corporate self-interest in this instance.  It was the United States, specifically the CIA, which originally framed Megrahi, because in the late 1980s it was eager to divert the investigation from – of all countries – Iran. It was the Scotch judiciary which bowed to pressure from Westminster to ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary and to convict Megrahi. It was a British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who colluded with a U.S. President, G.H.W. Bush, in instigating  this disgraceful miscarriage of justice. Will the Senate Foreign Relations Committee probe such matters? Of course not.  Gillibrand and Menendez  will erupt on schedule for the cameras and call it a day.

Megrahi was innocent, framed by the US and British security services. What follows is my brother, Andrew Cockburn’s investigation of the frame-up, which we published in our CounterPunch newsletter just after the original trial.

The original Lockerbie trial took place in 2000, presided over by three Scottish judges who travelled to a courthouse in the Netherlands, convicting Megrahi and acquitting his colleague, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

In a trenchant early criticism of the verdict, Hans Koechler, a distinguished Austrian philosopher appointed as one of five international observers at the trial in Zeist, Holland, by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a well-merited denunciation of the judges’ bizarre conclusion. “In my opinion,” Koechler said, “there seemed to be considerable political influence on the judges and the verdict.”

Koechler pointed out that the judges found Megrahi guilty even though they themselves admitted that his identification by a Maltese shop owner (summoned by the prosecution to testify that Megrahi bought clothes, later deemed to have been packed in the lethal suitcase bomb) was “not absolute” and that there was a “mass of conflicting evidence.”

Furthermore, Koechler queried the active involvement of senior U.S. Justice Department officials as part of the Scotch prosecution team “in a supervisory role.”

In essence, the case was based (a) on the presumption that the bomb timer on the Pan Am plane was from a batch sold by a Swiss firm to Libya; (b) that fragments of clothing retrieved from the crash site and identified as having been in the suitcase that contained the bomb, had been bought by the accused Megrahi from a shop in Malta; and (c) that a “secret witness,” Abdulmajid Gialka, a former colleague of the accused pair in the Libyan Airlines office in Malta, would testify that he had observed them either constructing the bomb or at least seen them loading on the plane in Frankfurt.

The prosecution was unable to produce evidence to substantiate any of these points or to encourage any confidence in Gialka’s reliability as a witness. The Swiss manufacturer of the timer, Edwin Bollier, testified he had sold timers of a similar type to the East Germans and conceded, in cross-examination by defense lawyers, that he had connections to many intelligence agencies, including not only the Libyans but also the CIA.

By the time of the trial, Gialka had been living under witness protection in the U.S.A. He had received $320,000 from his American hosts and, in the event of conviction of the accused, stood to collect up to $4 million in reward money. He had CIA connections, so the defense lawyers learned, before 1988.

The prosecution’s case absolutely depended on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Megrahi was the man who bought the clothes, traced by police to a Maltese clothes shop. In nineteen separate statements to police prior to the trial the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, had failed to make a positive identification of Megrahi. In the witness box, Gauci was asked five times if he recognized anyone in the courtroom. No answer. Finally, the exasperated prosecutor pointed to the dock and asked if the man sitting on the left was the customer in question. Even so, the best that Gauci could do was to mumble that “he resembles him.”

Gauci had also told the police that the man who bought the clothes was 6 feet tall and over 50 years of age. Megrahi is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and in late 1988 he was 36. The clothes were bought either on November 23 or December 7, 1988. On an earlier occasion, when shown a photograph of Mohammed Abu Talb, a Palestinian terrorist whom the defense contended was the real bomber, Gauci used almost the same words with more confidence, declaring, according to his brother, that Talb “resembles” the clothes buyer “a lot.” Gauci’s identification of Megrahi at the identity parade just before the opening of the trial was with the words, “not exactly the man I saw in the shop. Ten years ago I saw him, but the man who look [sic] a little bit like is the number 5” (Megrahi).

Megrahi was in Malta on December 7 but not on the November date. The shopkeeper recalled that the man who bought the clothes also bought an umbrella because it was raining heavily outside. Maltese meteorological records introduced by the defense showed clearly that while it did rain all day on November 23, there was almost certainly no rain on December 7. If it did rain on that date, the shower would have been barely enough to wet the pavement. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that Megrahi had bought the clothes on December 7.

No less vital to the prosecution’s case was its contention that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 had been loaded as unaccompanied baggage onto an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, flown on to London, and thence onto the ill-fated flight to New York. In support of this, prosecutors produced a document from Frankfurt airport indicating that a bag had gone from the baggage-handling station, at which the Air Malta bags (along with those from other flights) had been unloaded, and had been sent to the handling station for the relevant flight to London. But there was firm evidence from the defense that all the bags on the Air Malta flight were accompanied and were collected at the other end. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that the lethal suitcase had indeed come from Malta. When Granada TV broadcast a documentary asserting such a transfer as a fact, Air Malta sued and extracted damages.

The most likely explanation of the judges’ decision to convict Megrahi despite the evidence, or lack of it, must be that either they panicked at the thought of the uproar that would ensue on the U.S. end if they let both the Libyans off, or they were simply given their marching orders by high authority in London. English judges are used to doing their duty in this manner – see, for example, the results of various “impartial” judicial inquiries into British atrocities in Northern Ireland over the years, such as Justice Widgery’s whitewash in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday.

In closing arguments, the prosecution stressed the point that Megrahi could not have planted the bomb without the assistance of Fhimah – that both defendants were equally guilty, and should stand or fall together. Nevertheless, the judges elected to find one of the two conspirators guilty and the other one innocent, a split verdict that Koechler found “incomprehensible.” It is, however, entirely comprehensible if we accept that the judges knew there was no evidence to convict either man, but that it was politically imperative for them to convict at least one.

Iran the Likely Sponsor

A former CIA official and friend of CounterPunch  back at the time of the original trial in 2000, Andrew continues, notes that he had taken part in the original investigation of the Pan Am 103 bombing. He said that if the original CIA report was ever to be made public, it would provide “damning evidence” that “the Libyans were never directly involved in the Lockerbie bombing.” In fact, the evidence in the CIA’s possession pointed more clearly in the direction of the original suspects in the case, members of a group known as the PFLP-GC, closely linked to Iran.

The Iranians had a clear motive for an attack on an American airliner, following the destruction of an Iranian Airbus over the Persian Gulf carrying 290 passengers, including 66 children, on July 3, 1988. The U.S. Navy missile carrier Vincennes had casually blown it out of the sky despite clear indications it was a civilian plane. Afterwards, the U.S. Navy concealed the fact that the Vincennes had been in Iranian territorial waters at the time, refused to admit error or pay compensation, and handed out medals to the ship’s officers for heroism in combat.

The initial U.S. and British investigations pointed clearly to a case against the Iranians as having contracted with the Lebanon-based PFLP-GC, or a section thereof, to exact retribution. Two months before Lockerbie, the West Germans arrested members of this group outside Dusseldorf as they were preparing bombs specifically designed to bring down airliners. U.S. intelligence had traced a payment of $500,000 into the account of a professional bomber, Abu Talb, in April 1989. A British journalist showed the Maltese shop owner who sold the clothes found in the bomb-suitcase a photo of Talb, and he declared that the man in the photo “most resembled” the purchaser. At one point, the Scottish police were about to charge Talb who had, since 1989, been serving time in a Swedish jail for a series of bomb attacks in Sweden and Denmark.

In March 1989, however, Margaret Thatcher called President G.W.H. Bush to discuss the case. The two leaders agreed it was important to “cool it” on the Iranian angle, since they were in no position to punish the Tehran regime, which had just survived the eight-year war with U.S./U.K.-sponsored Iraq. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, it became more imperative than ever to obscure any suspicion of Iranian complicity in the Lockerbie bombing, given the importance of Iranian assistance in the upcoming war with Saddam Hussein. Thus the perennial “rogue,” Mummar Qaddafi, was drafted as the suspect of choice.

Another factor probably played a role in the Scotch decision to release him on compassionate grounds last year. Megrahi and his able legal team had been preparing an appeal which would have deeply embarrassing to the Scottish judiciary. But with the release,  the thousands of pages of Megrahi’s appeal went  into the trash bin and Megrahi will, in the complacent words of a Scottish government spokesman, “die a convicted man”, however long he evades the Reaper. 

The irony is that today the U.S. would no doubt be only too eager to finger Iran as the perpetrator. Perhaps that at least  might stir Schumer and his colleagues.

Al Gore: Local Warming

It looks as though the National Enquirer is closing in on the former vice president, in a re-run of its auto-da-fe of John Edwards, soon to be a motion picture. First the Enquirer featured the charge by Portland, OR, therapist Molly Hagerty who had told local police that she had been molested by Gore in the Lucia hotel in 2006 , when he demanded unscheduled services during a $500-plus massage session.

Now the National Enquirer describes  two new allegations, the first  on a trip to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars in 2007 – when An Inconvenient Truth won best documentary – and the second  a visit to Tokyo in 2008. On the first occasion, Gore is alleged to have demanded more than a traditional massage at his Beverly Hills hotel, while in Tokyo he is said to have dropped his towel, and directed  the masseuse, "Take care of this".

Tipper has already baled. Here at CounterPunch Books Jeffrey St Clair and I are pondering a reissue of our classic Al Gore: A User’s Manual, with an afterword by Ms. Hagerty.

How the Gulf of Mexico was Sold

In our terrific  newsletter, the full story of the collusion between BP and the Obama Administration. This is a major investigation by Jeffrey St. Clair, with details of the revolving door relationship between BP and the Obama Administration that shatter Obama’s claims of transparency. PLUS Frank Bardacke reports from Watsonville on the real border-crossing economy. How much does it cost to be driven past a corrupt border patrol agent at an official port of entry to the U.S. from Mexico?  Bardacke describes  the real border-crossing economy.

PLUS JoAnn Wypijewski, Daniel Wolff and myself, remembering Ben Sonnenberg.

I urge you to  subscribe now!

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.

 

 

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