Acres of newsprint have appeared in recent years, covering various rather separate theories about the release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber. If I thought for one moment that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was guilty as charged in the mass murder of 270 innocent people in the crash of the Pan Am airliner "Maid of the Seas" at Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, I would not have agreed to pen an obituary – let alone an affectionate one.
My settled conviction, as a "Professor of Lockerbie Studies" over a 22-year period, is that neither Megrahi nor Libya had any role in the destruction of Pan Am 103. The Libyans were cynically scapegoated in 1990, two years after the crash, by a US government which had decided to go to war with Iraq and did not want complications with Syria and Iran, which had harboured the real perpetrators of the terrible deed.
Libya and its "operatives", Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, only came into the frame at a very late date. In my informed opinion, Megrahi has been the victim of one of the most spectacular (and expensive) miscarriages of justice in history. The assertion of innocence is confirmed in the 497 pages of John Ashton's scholarly and remarkable book, "Megrahi: You Are My Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence", published by Birlinn.
This is an opinion shared by the senior and experienced solicitor Eddie McKechnie, who successfully represented Fhimah at Zeist in Holland, where a Scottish court was assembled to try the two accused under rules conducted by the jurisdiction of the laws of Scotland, and who took on Megrahi's case following his conviction; by Tony Kelly, the immensely thorough solicitor who has represented him for the past six years; by the bereaved relatives Dr Jim Swire and the Reverend John Mosey, who lost daughters and attended the entire Zeist trial; by Professor Robert Black, Emeritus Professor of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, and Lockerbie-born; and by many others in legal Edinburgh.
Furthermore, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, in the course of its 800-page report, says (paragraph 24, page 708): "The Crown deprived the defence of the opportunity to take such steps as it might have deemed necessary – so the defence's case was damaged." It concluded: "The commission's view is that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred."
Megrahi was not in Malta on the date the clothing, so crucial in the whole Lockerbie saga, was bought from the shopkeeper Tony Gauci. The proprietor of Mary's House identified a number of different people, including Abu Talb, who appeared at the trial to deny his part in the bombing. Talb was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command and is now serving a life sentence in Sweden for the 1985 bombings in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. These discrepancies were part of the reason why the Scottish criminal review commission concluded that there could have been a miscarriage of justice; another was the unexplained payment of $10m from Iranian sources into the coffers of the Popular Front.
The testimony of Lesley Atkinson, who knew Megrahi well in Tripoli, is interesting. She is the wife of Neville Atkinson, who, in 1972, left a career as a night-fighter pilot in the Royal Navy to take up a position as personal pilot to the president of Libya, Colonel Gaddafi, until 1982. "Megrahi was polite and friendly and worked for Libyan Arab Airlines," Mrs Atkinson told me. "Of course, lots of people who worked for LAA were connected to the security services and I do not doubt that he was one of them. We knew him both at work and at the Beach Club – he was a normal, nice guy. I cannot imagine that he would ever have dreamt of planting a bomb on an airliner. He just would not have done that to passengers."
Eddie McKechnie described Megrahi as a cultured man doing a job for his country, and certainly not a mass-murderer. Had he not been given extremely bad advice not to appear in the witness box Megrahi would have revealed the truth – that he was a sanctions-buster, travelling the world to find spare parts for the Libyan oil industry and Libyan Arab Airlines. This role was confirmed to me by Colonel Gaddafi, when, as leader of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Libya in March 2001, I saw him in his tent outside Sirte. Gaddafi's own knowledge or involvement in Lockerbie is a different matter.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was born in 1952 and educated in Tripoli and in the Engineering Faculty of Benghazi University. He became involved in the Ministry of Trade, and like many other officials, certainly did so in the intelligence services. He served as the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines and as director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tripoli. A genuine believer in what the young Gaddafi was trying to achieve, and in the Great Jamariyah, Megrahi was happy to put his talents at the service of the state. Where else in Africa is there no hint of personal corruption among the leadership, he asked me! He had good relations with engineers at Brown and Root, I was told by their chairman and managing director, Sir Richard Morris (1980-90). Brown and Root was the contractor for the huge irrigation projects in Cyreneica, south of Benghazi, the man-made river bringing water to desert areas that had been fertile in Roman times.
He was understandably proud of the traditional skills associated with his people. On one occasion, when I visited him in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow and told him that I had been to Leptis Magna, he responded: "You know that my Tripolitanian ancestors were the artists in stone, responsible for work throughout the Empire, not least in Rome itself!" Had the judges had the opportunity to get to know Megrahi, as I knew him, they could never have arrived at the verdict of "guilty" – at most, the good Scots legal term "not proven".
After Zeist, Fhimah, represented by the aggressively formidable barrister Richard Keen QC, was cleared and returned to a hero's welcome in Tripoli. Fhimah talked with knowledge and pride, as did Megrahi, about the wonderful sight of Sabbratah and the glories of the Greek colonial city at Cyrene.
Meanwhile, Megrahi was incarcerated in Barlinnie Prison. I was not his only visitor there and in Greenock who came away with a favourable opinion. Dr Swire, who lost his daughter Flora, a medical student at the University of Nottingham, told me:
- "On meeting Abdelbaset in Greenock prison, I found him charming, rational, not given to anger or bluster. He made it obvious that his first priority was to clear his name before returning to his much-loved family in Tripoli. I saw him for the last time just before Christmas 2008, when, he, a devout Muslim, gave me a Christmas card in which he asked me and my family to pray for him and his family. That card is one of my most precious possessions. This meeting was before he could have known just how closely death loomed. I cannot criticise his apparently voluntary decision to spend his last months on earth with his family, above the priority of clearing his name."
I know that in some uninformed quarters, Dr Swire's views are regarded as eccentric. But it is the other British relatives who have studied the position in depth, such as Martin Cadman, who lost his son Bill; Pamela Dix, who lost her brother; and the Reverend John Mosey, who lost a daughter, have arrived at precisely the same conclusions about Megrahi's innocence. Unlike some American relatives, they have bothered to make exhaustive studies of the detail.
In my opinion, whatever Gordon Brown, Kenny MacAskill, Alex Salmond and Jack Straw – all fundamentally decent human beings – may feel they have to say in public due to pressure, and wickedness in Washington and in the Crown Office in Edinburgh, which, above all, did not want their misdeeds exposed by the truth, they all knew that they were acquiescing in the release of an innocent man. I am not quite so sure that Fhimah did not have an inkling about potentially explosive material on its way to the Bekaa valley.
Even in his final hours, controversy never deserted Megrahi. The Libyan authorities were absolutely justified in declining to extradite him, both for reasons of international law and more importantly, that he was not guilty as charged of the Lockerbie crime – also the considered opinion of Dr Hans Köchler, who attended Megrahi's trial as an official UN observer and has examined his appeal process in Scotland.
As James Cusick, who has followed the twists and turns of the Lockerbie saga for many years as a highly informed journalist, wrote in The Independent on Tuesday 30 August, "The truth behind the Lockerbie bombing remains enmeshed in diplomatic gains." My last sight of Abdelbaset was on TV on 3 October, attended by Mrs Megrahi, with tubes galore, thanking Dr Swire in gentle tones for trying to furnish necessary drugs and hissing out that there were many liars at Zeist. So there were.