Scottish judicial authorities have referred the case of the Pan Am Boeing 747-100 bombing over Lockerbie to a court of appeal, 19 years after the only conviction for the attack was secured.
The bombing on 21 December 1988 resulted in 259 fatalities from the aircraft, operating flight PA103 to New York, plus 11 residents on the ground.
Conviction of the Libyan suspect, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, by a special Scottish court in the Netherlands in January 2001 has long been controversial.
While Al Megrahi died in 2012, after serving part of a prison sentence, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has referred the case to the High Court of Justiciary, allowing his family to instruct an appeal over his conviction.
Six points have been considered by the commission as part of its review of the case, and it says it believes a “miscarriage of justice may have occurred” in two of them – although not the other four.
Crucially it believes “no reasonable trial court” could have accepted – based on the evidence of a shopkeeper in Malta – that Al Megrahi was the purchaser of clothing which was later determined to have been packed in a suitcase containing the bomb.
The commission says the conclusion that Al Megrahi was the purchaser was “integral” to the court’s conclusion that he was guilty of the attack.
“Notwithstanding that the remaining chapters of evidence pointed to the involvement of operators of the Libyan state in the execution of the crime,” it adds, “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 [Al Megrahi] was proved beyond reasonable doubt.”
Prosecutors should also have disclosed to the defence team a police report that the shopkeeper had been in possession of photographs of Al Megrahi before identification parades, potentially undermining the shopkeeper’s identification evidence and weakening the case.
The commission considers the prosecution’s failure to disclose this information deprived Al Megrahi of a “real chance of an acquittal”. It also believes a failure to disclose details of reward money to be paid to the shopkeeper, under a US government scheme, reinforces its conclusion that Al Megrahi was “denied a fair trial”.
Al Megrahi was convicted through circumstantial evidence after a court heard that the suitcase – containing the clothing and a bomb built into a radio-cassette player – was placed on an Air Malta flight from Malta to Frankfurt, transferred to a Pan Am feeder service to London Heathrow, and put on the 747.
The court found that Al Megrahi was a senior member of Libyan intelligence, with connections to military procurement, and that he had associations with the partner in a Swiss firm that produced the timing trigger used in the bomb.
Al Megrahi had also flown into Malta on 20 December 1988 – the day before the bombing – under a false passport, staying in a hotel under a false name, and was present at Malta’s Luqa airport the following day before flying to Libya, the court found.
“This is the second time that the commission has carried out what I believe has been a rigorous and independent review of this particular conviction,” says Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission chairman Bill Matthews.
“We note that, since our last review, further information has become available, including within the public domain, which the commission has now been able to consider and assess.”
Al Megrahi had an initial appeal refused in 2002 and, following a review, the commission referred the case to the High Court in 2007. But Al Megrahi abandoned this appeal in 2009, days before his release from prison, on compassionate grounds, was approved by Scottish ministers.
Renewed referral of the case for appeal comes in the same week that another trial has opened in the Netherlands concerning the deliberate destruction of a long-haul airliner, with Dutch prosecutors putting a case – in absentia – against four suspects alleged to have assisted with the shooting-down of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER operating flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.