Until 9/11 it had been the most atrocious act of terror; the mid-air bombing of Pan Am’s flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, December 21, 1988. Two hundred seventy were killed, many of them American students homeward bound. A bomb secreted aboard in luggage had brought grief and anger to some 170 homes in the United States. A three-year investigation would analyze 180,000 pieces of evidence, interview 15,000 witnesses, and lead finally to Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, agents of Colonel Qaddafi’s Libyan Intelligence Service.
At their subsequent trial in 2001, only Megrahi was found guilty. Fhimah was exonerated. Megrahi was sentenced to 27 years in jail in Scotland, the venue of the crime. Today, the man who indicted and prosecuted Megrahi, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, is having second thoughts. This former Conservative minister describes his prime witness as “not quite the full shilling.” Lord Fraser stops short of saying he convicted an innocent man, but then advocates something Qaddafi has been bucking for — the return of al-Megrahi to Libya to serve out the remainder of his term. Not that Megrahi has been languishing in his Scottish cell; he reportedly has unlimited telephone privileges and access to Arab television.
Lord Fraser now casts doubt on the veracity of his star witness, a Maltese named Tony Gauci who testified he had sold clothing to Megrahi in which the bomb components were found to have been wrapped. Now, Fraser is quoted by the Sunday Times as saying Gauci was a “weak point” in his case, a “simple” man who might have been “easily led.”
When word of Fraser’s new attitude reached Tripoli, Qaddafi sent Fraser an immediate invitation to come to Tripoli and chat. Fraser has stopped short of this. But rumors sprang up early this month that officials from the United States, Britain, and Libya had met to discuss Megrahi’s repatriation, though his sentence specifies he serve out the time in Scotland.
Returning Megrahi to his native haunts is not a new idea. Lawyers for the survivors sent a Libyan letter dated October 14, 2004 to their clients which the clients were to sign stating “we have no objection to his return.”
Among those declining to sign are Mr. and Mrs. Dan Cohen of Cape May, New Jersey, whose daughter Theodora was a 20-year-old junior at Syracuse University when she boarded Pan Am flight 103. Says Mrs. Cohen of a projected rehabilitation of Megrahi, “I feel pretty-well betrayed…if he goes to Libya, he’s a hero.” The Cohens accepted part of Libya’s multi-million dollar settlement to the families, but rejected half of the proposed amount when it would mean restoring Libya to the family of nations and removing it from the terrorism list.
The Cohens complain they are getting the run-around from official Washington as to Megrahi’s eventual fate and place of residence. Mrs. Cohen says she has dealt with George Herbert Walker Bush, President Clinton, and the present President on the subject and “this Bush is the worst.”
Megrahi has already lost one appeal, but the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is scheduled to receive new evidence during an appellate procedure next year. Given Lord Fraser’s suddenly received doubts about his own case, there are thoughts a deal may be in the works; the appeal is dropped and Megrahi is returned to Libya.
As for Lord Fraser’s second thoughts, the man they center on, Tony Gauci, says, “I am not interested in what this man said. What matters to me is what the court said and that’s it.”
That, Mr. Gauci, may not be “it” after all.