Handover of a Libyan suspect opens a new chapter in Lockerbie bombing horror story

Special Remains of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988. All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed as well as 11 Lockerbie residents. (AFP)
Remains of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988. All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed as well as 11 Lockerbie residents. (AFP)
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Updated 20 December 2022

Handover of a Libyan suspect opens a new chapter in Lockerbie bombing horror story

Handover of a Libyan suspect opens a new chapter in Lockerbie bombing horror story
  • Many believe Libyans were accused of a crime that the Iranian regime had a motive to perpetrate
  • For others, the arrest of Masud offers the prospect of long overdue justice for the 270 victims of the disaster

LONDON: It happened more than three decades ago, but the horror that was the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 lives on, for the families of the slain, for the Scottish community torn apart when the flaming wreckage crashed down in pieces on their town and for the first responders who arrived to find hellish scenes none would ever forget.

For some, the arrest last week of a Libyan man charged with having made the bomb that downed the jumbo jet over Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, offers the prospect of long overdue justice for the 270 victims of the disaster and their families.

For others, though, confidence in the judicial system and the joint US-Scottish investigation that has led to the latest arrest was shaken long ago by uncertainties that continue to hang over the trial and conviction in May 2000 of another Libyan, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, who in 2001 was found guilty of carrying out the bombing.

The undisputed facts of the case, which will doubtless be rehearsed again during the upcoming trial, are harrowing.

The Boeing 747, en route from London to New York City, was just half an hour into its flight and cruising at 31,000 feet when the bomb exploded shortly after 7 p.m., scattering aircraft parts, luggage and bodies over a wide area. The investigators would be faced with a crime scene of 2,200 square kilometers.

On board the doomed aircraft were 259 passengers and crew of 21 nationalities. The oldest victim was 82, the youngest a two-month-old baby, found held tight in her dead mother’s arms.




A man looks at the main memorial stone in memory of the victims of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in the garden of remembrance near Lockerbie, Scotland Friday Dec. 21, 2018. (AFP)

The 190 Americans on the flight included a party of 35 students from Syracuse University, returning home for Christmas after an overseas study tour.

Eleven more people died in their homes on the ground. Among them were the Flannigans, mother and father Kathleen, 41, Thomas, 44, and their daughter Joanne, aged 10.

Joanne’s body was eventually found in the deep crater gouged out of the street where the family lived, but her parents’ remains were never recovered.

Last week, 71-year-old Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, an alleged former intelligence officer for the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, appeared in a US court accused of being the bombmaker.

It is a stunning development in a case which, for many relatives of the dead, has never been satisfactorily settled. Masud’s anticipated trial represents an unexpected opportunity for the many remaining doubts surrounding the Lockerbie disaster to be resolved once and for all.




Paul Hudson of Sarasota, Fla., holds up a photo of his daughter Melina who was killed at 16 years old along with the photos of almost a hundred other victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as he speaks to members of the media in front of the federal courthouse in Washington, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022. (AFP)

Key among them is the suspicion, which has persisted for three decades, that the Libyans were falsely accused of a crime that was actually perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

Iran certainly had a motive. On July 3, 1988, five months before the bombing, Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300 carrying Iranian pilgrims bound for Makkah, had been shot down accidentally over the Strait of Hormuz by a US guided-missile cruiser, the Vincennes.

All 290 people on board were killed, including 66 children and 16 members of one family, who had been traveling to Dubai for a wedding.

In 1991, a subsequently declassified secret report from within the US Defense Intelligence Agency made it clear that from the outset Iran was the number-one suspect.

Ayatollah Mohtashemi, a former Iranian interior minister, was “closely connected to the Al-Abas and Abu Nidal terrorist groups,” it read.

He had “recently paid $10 million in cash and gold to these two organizations to carry out terrorist activities and ... paid the same amount to bomb Pam Am flight 103, in retaliation for the US shoot-down of the Iranian Airbus.”

The evidence implicating Iran piled up. It emerged that two months before the bombing, German police had raided a cell of the terror group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command and seized a bomb hidden in a Toshiba cassette player, just like the one that would be used to blow up Pan Am flight 103.

Yet in November 1991 it was two Libyan intelligence operatives, Abdel Baset Ali Al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who were charged with the murders. The case against them was circumstantial at best.




The artist sketch depicts Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson, front left, watching as Whitney Minter, a public defender from the eastern division of Virginia, stands to represent Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, accused of making the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. (AFP)

After years of negotiations with Qaddafi’s government, the two men were eventually handed over to be tried in a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands. Their trial began in May 2000, and on Jan. 31, 2001, Al-Megrahi was found guilty and Fhimah was acquitted.

The crown’s case was that an unaccompanied suitcase containing the bomb had been carried on an Air Malta flight from Luqa Airport in Malta to Frankfurt. There, it was transferred to a Pan Am aircraft to London, where it was loaded onto flight 103.

Inside the suitcase, wrapped in clothing, was the Toshiba cassette player containing the bomb.

A small part of a printed circuit board, believed to be from the bomb timer, was found in the wreckage, along with a fragment of a piece of clothing. This was traced to a store in Malta where the owner, Tony Gauci, told police he remembered selling it to a Libyan man.

Gauci, who died in 2016, was the prosecution’s main witness, but from the outset there were serious doubts about his evidence. He was interviewed 23 times by Scottish police before he finally identified Al-Megrahi — and only then after seeing the wanted man’s photograph in a newspaper article naming him as a suspect.

In their judgment, even the three Scottish judges conceded that “on the matter of identification of the … accused, there are undoubtedly problems.”

Worse, in 2007 Scottish newspaper The Herald claimed that the CIA had offered Gauci $2 million to give evidence in the case.

FASTFACTS

• Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi recently appeared in the US District Court of the District of Columbia to face charges over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

• Masud allegedly confessed to role as bombmaker while in Libyan custody the day after the US ambassador was killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.

• Five months before Lockerbie bombing, 290 people died when Iran Air flight 655 carrying pilgrims was accidentally shot down by US guided-missile cruiser.

Another part of the prosecution’s case was that the fingernail-sized fragment of circuit board found in the wreckage, believed to have been part of the timer that triggered the bomb, matched a batch of timers supplied to Libya by a Swiss company in 1985.

However, the company insisted the timer on the aircraft had not been supplied to Libya, and in 2007 its CEO claimed that he had been offered $4 million by the FBI to say that it had.

Many have denounced the trial as a sham, suggesting that Qaddafi agreed to surrender Al-Megrahi and Fhimah, accept responsibility for the attack and pay compensation to the families of the victims, only because the US promised that the sanctions that had been imposed on Libya would be eased.

After Al-Megrahi’s appeal against his conviction was rejected in March 2002, one of the independent UN observers assigned to the case as a condition of Libya’s cooperation condemned what he called the “spectacular miscarriage of justice.”




Jim Swire, spokesman for relatives of victims of the Lockerbie plane crash and father of a daughter who died in the terrorist attack, carries a document marked 'Judgement Day' as he arrives at the Scottish court at Camp Zeist 10 January 2001. (AFP)

Professor Hans Kochler said that he was “not convinced at all that the sequence of events that led to this explosion of the plane over Scotland was as described by the court. Everything that is presented is only circumstantial evidence.”

It remains to be seen what evidence will be presented in the upcoming trial of Masud.

Reports say that he was released only last year from prison in Libya, having been jailed for a decade for his part in the government of Qaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011.

Last week, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah said that his government had handed Masud over to the Americans.

“An arrest warrant was issued against him from Interpol,” he said on Dec. 16. “It has become imperative for us to cooperate in this file for the sake of Libya’s interest and stability.”




Last week, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah said that his government had handed Masud over to the Americans. (AFP)

As Dbeibah put it, Libya “had to wipe the mark of terrorism from the Libyan people’s forehead.”

From the very beginning, one of the strongest advocates for the innocence of Al-Megrahi was Jim Swire, a British doctor whose daughter Flora died in the bombing on the eve of her 24th birthday. Now 86, Swire has spent the past three decades campaigning tirelessly to expose what he believes was a miscarriage of justice.

Al-Megrahi, suffering from prostate cancer, was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009. Shortly before his death in Libya in 2012, he was visited in his sick bed by Swire, who in an interview last year recalled Al-Megrahi’s last words to him: “I am going to a place where I hope soon to see Flora. I will tell her that her father is my friend.”

Last week, Swire called for the trial of Masud not to be held in the US or Scotland.

“There are so many loose ends that hang from this dreadful case, largely emanating from America, that I think we should … seek a court that is free of being beholden to any nation directly involved in the atrocity itself,” he said.

“What we’ve always been after amongst the British relatives is the truth, and not a fabrication that might seem to be replacing the truth.”

 


Landmark Hong Kong national security trial starts 2 years after arrests

Landmark Hong Kong national security trial starts 2 years after arrests
Updated 06 February 2023

Landmark Hong Kong national security trial starts 2 years after arrests

Landmark Hong Kong national security trial starts 2 years after arrests
  • The 31 who pleaded guilty, including former law professor Benny Tai and activist Joshua Wong, will be sentenced after the trial
  • Western governments have criticized the 2020 national security law as a tool to crush dissent in the former British colony

HONG KONG: Sixteen Hong Kong pro-democracy figures face trial on Monday, more than two years after their arrest, in what some observers say is a landmark case for the city’s judicial independence under a national security law imposed by Beijing.
The defendants are those who pleaded not guilty out of 47 arrested in a dawn raid in January 2021 and charged with conspiracy to commit subversion for participating in an unofficial primary election in 2020.
Thirteen of those arrested were granted bail in 2021, while the other 34 — including 10 who pleaded not guilty — have been in pre-trial custody on national security grounds.
Western governments have criticized the 2020 national security law as a tool to crush dissent in the former British colony. Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the law, which punishes subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in prison, has brought stability to the Asian financial hub after huge pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Prosecutors have described the primary election — held to select the strongest candidates to contest an upcoming legislative election — as a “vicious plot” to subvert the government and to wreak “mutual destruction” on the city by taking control of the city’s parliament.
The lengthy, high-profile case has drawn international criticism, as government prosecutors repeatedly requested more time to prepare legal documents and gather more evidence.
“This trial is not simply a trial against the 47 opposition leaders but also a trial for the population who has been supporting the pro-democracy movement for decades,” Eric Lai, a fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington, told Reuters.
The trial is expected to last 90 days, with three defendants expected to testify against the others, prosecutors say.
Those who have pleaded not guilty include former journalist Gwyneth Ho, activist Owen Chow, former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, and labor unionist Winnie Yu.
“The actual people who need to go on trial are absolutely not us,” Chow wrote on his Facebook page in September. “We’re not guilty at all.”
The 31 who pleaded guilty, including former law professor Benny Tai and activist Joshua Wong, will be sentenced after the trial.
Among a number of departures from established common law procedures, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam refused the defendants a jury trial. The case will be heard by three High Court judges designated under the national security law: Andrew Chan, Alex Lee and Johnny Chan.
Pretrial proceedings were largely kept out of the public eye until Judge Lee agreed to lift reporting restrictions in August.

 


Putin promised not to kill Zelensky: Former Israeli PM

Putin promised not to kill Zelensky: Former Israeli PM
Updated 06 February 2023

Putin promised not to kill Zelensky: Former Israeli PM

Putin promised not to kill Zelensky: Former Israeli PM
  • Bennett said that during his mediation, Putin dropped his vow to seek Ukraine’s disarmament and Zelensky promised not to join NATO

TEL AVIV, Israel: A former Israeli prime minister who served briefly as a mediator at the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine says he drew a promise from the Russian president not to kill his Ukrainian counterpart.
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett emerged as an unlikely intermediary in the war’s first weeks, becoming one of the few Western leaders to meet President Vladimir Putin during the war in a snap trip to Moscow last March.
While Bennett’s mediation efforts appear to have done little to end the bloodshed that continues until today, his remarks, in an interview posted online late Saturday, shed light on the backroom diplomacy and urgent efforts that were underway to try to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion in its early days.
In the five-hour interview, which touched on numerous other subjects, Bennett says he asked Putin about whether he intended to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I asked ‘what’s with this? Are you planning to kill Zelensky?’ He said ‘I won’t kill Zelensky.’ I then said to him ‘I have to understand that you’re giving me your word that you won’t kill Zelensky.’ He said ‘I’m not going to kill Zelensky.’”
Bennett said he then called Zelensky to inform him of Putin’s pledge.
“’Listen, I came out of a meeting, he’s not going to kill you.’ He asks, ‘are you sure?’ I said ‘100 percent he won’t kill you.’“
Bennett said that during his mediation, Putin dropped his vow to seek Ukraine’s disarmament and Zelensky promised not to join NATO.
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin, which has previously denied Ukrainian claims that Russia intended to assassinate Zelensky.
Reacting to Bennett’s comments in his widely reported interview, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote Sunday on Twitter: “Do not be fooled: He is an expert liar. Every time he has promised not to do something, it has been exactly part of his plan.”
Bennett, a largely untested leader who had served as prime minister for just over six months when the war broke out, unexpectedly thrust himself into international diplomacy after he had positioned Israel into an uncomfortable middle ground between Russia and Ukraine. Israel views its good ties with the Kremlin as strategic in the face of threats from Iran but it aligns itself with Western nations and also seeks to show support for Ukraine.
An observant Jew and little known internationally, he flew to Moscow for his meeting with Putin during the Jewish Sabbath, breaking his religious commitments and putting himself at the forefront of global efforts to halt the war.
But his peacemaking efforts did not appear to take off and his time in power was short-lived. Bennett’s government, an ideologically diverse union that sent current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a brief political exile, collapsed in the summer over infighting. Bennett stepped away from politics and is now a private citizen.

 


Mali junta expels UN mission’s human rights chief: govt

Mali junta expels UN mission’s human rights chief: govt
Updated 06 February 2023

Mali junta expels UN mission’s human rights chief: govt

Mali junta expels UN mission’s human rights chief: govt
  • “This measure comes after the destabilising and subversive actions of Monsieur Andali,” added the statement, which was also read out on national television news

BAMAKO: Mali’s ruling junta said Sunday that it was expelling the head of the human rights division of MINUSMA, the UN mission there, giving him 48 hours to leave the country.
The decision comes after a Malian rights activist last month denounced the security situation in the country in a speech to a UN gathering, and accused the regime’s new Russian military partners of serious rights violations.
The foreign ministry had declared Guillaume Ngefa Atonodok Andali, head of MINUSMA’s human rights section, persona non grata, said a statement issued by government spokesman Col. Abdoulaye Maiga.
“This measure comes after the destabilising and subversive actions of Monsieur Andali,” added the statement, which was also read out on national television news.
Andali had taken it upon himself to decide who were the representatives of civil society, ignoring the authorities and national institutions, the statement added.
“Andali’s bias was even more evident during the last review of the United Nations Security Council on Mali,” the statement added.
On January 27, Aminata Cheick Dicko criticized the regime at a special UN Security Council briefing on Mali.
MINUSMA was set up in 2013 to try to stabilize Mali in the face of the growing threat from jihadist fighters.
Its mission also included the protection of civilians, contributing to peace efforts and defending human rights.
But the security situation has continued to deteriorate in the west African country.
The military regime has repeatedly blocked MINUSMA’s attempts to investigate growing reports of human rights abuses carried out by the armed forces.

 


Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP
Updated 05 February 2023

Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP
  • "Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping", Ukranian lawmaker says

KYIV: Ukraine’s defense minister will be preplaced by the chief of the military intelligence ahead of an expected Russian offensive and following corruption scandals, a senior lawmaker said on Sunday.
“Kyrylo Budanov will head the defense ministry, which is absolutely logical in wartime,” said senior lawmaker David Arakhamia, referring to the 37-year-old chief of the military intelligence.
Reznikov, 56, will be appointed minister for strategic industries, the lawmaker said without specifying a timeline for the planned re-shuffle.
“War dictates personnel policies,” added Arakhamia.
“Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping. This is happening now and will continue to happen in the future,” he added.
“The enemy is preparing to advance. We are preparing to defend ourselves.”
One of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war effort, Reznikov was appointed defense minister in November 2021 and has helped secure Western weapons to buttress Ukrainian forces.
But his ministry has been beset by corruption scandals.
Reznikov’s deputy was forced to resign in late January after the ministry was accused of signing food contracts at prices two to three times higher than current rates for basic foodstuffs.
Speaking to reporters earlier Sunday, Reznikov did not say if he planned to stay on at the ministry.
But he added that only President Volodymyr Zelensky, who last week stepped up efforts to clamp down on corruption, could decide his fate.
“The stress that I have endured this year is hard to measure precisely. I am not ashamed of anything,” Reznikov said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”


Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon

Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon
Updated 05 February 2023

Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon

Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon
  • “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Trump wrote on social media

WASHINGTON: Republican US lawmakers on Sunday criticized President Joe Biden for waiting days to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated over the United States, accusing him of showing weakness toward China and initially trying to keep the breach of US airspace undisclosed.
A US Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered US airspace near Alaska, triggering a dramatic spying saga that has further strained American-Chinese relations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday the US military was able to collect “valuable” intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the United States during Donald Trump’s administration — a disclosure the Republican former president denied.
“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.
Cotton told the “Fox News Sunday” program that he believed Biden had waited to disclose the penetration of US airspace because he wanted to salvage Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned diplomatic trip to Beijing, which ultimately was postponed.
“I think part of it is the president’s reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational toward the Chinese communists,” Cotton added.
Biden said on Saturday he issued an order on Wednesday to down the balloon after it crossed into Montana, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from debris crashing to Earth from nearly twice the altitude of commercial air traffic.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said of the Republican criticisms: “they are premature and they are political.”
The Defense Department in the coming week will brief the Senate on the suspected Chinese spy balloon and Chinese surveillance, Schumer told a news conference on Sunday.
NUCLEAR MISSILE SITES
Republican Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel also was set to receive a briefing on the spy balloon this week, though the exact timing has not been determined.
Turner said the balloon traveled unhindered over sensitive US nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it “to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems.”
“The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn’t even going to tell the American public if you hadn’t broken the story,” Turner told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There was no attempt to notify Congress, no attempt to put together the Gang of Eight (a bipartisan group of congressional leaders). I think this administration lacks urgency.”
Republican US Senator Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the ABC News program “This Week” that he would ask administration officials what future preparations have been made to prevent such an incident.
Rubio also said China was trying to send a message that it could enter US airspace, adding that he doubted that the balloon’s debris would be of much intelligence value.
Trump on Sunday disputed Austin’s statement that Chinese government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly three times during his presidency.
“China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Trump wrote on social media.
Speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures” show, Trump’s former director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also denied such balloon incidents.
China on Sunday condemned the US action against what Beijing called an airship used for meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally” — claims rejected by US officials.
“China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting.”