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February 5, 2001
PanAm 103 Verdict: Justice or Politics?

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Alternate Suspects

There is, moreover, an alternative scenario, laying the blame on Iran and Syria, which is much better documented and makes a lot more sense, logistically, politically, and technically.

Indeed, this was the Original Official Version, delivered with Olympian rectitude by the U.S. government -- guaranteed, sworn to, scout's honor, case closed -- until the Gulf War came along in 1990 and the support of Iran and Syria was needed.

Washington was anxious as well to achieve the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by groups close to Iran. The scurrying sound of backtracking then became audible in the corridors of the White House.

Suddenly -- or so it seemed -- in October 1990, there was a New Official Version: It was Libya -- the Arab state least supportive of the U.S. build-up to the Gulf War and the sanctions imposed against Iraq -- that was behind the bombing after all, declared Washington.

The two Libyans were formally indicted in the U.S. and Scotland on Nov. 14, 1991.

"This was a Libyan government operation from start to finish," declared the State Department spokesman. [NYT, Nov. 15, 1991]

"The Syrians took a bum rap on this," said President George H.W. Bush. [Los Angeles Times, Nov. 15, 1991]

Within the next 20 days, the remaining four American hostages were released along with the most prominent British hostage, Terry Waite.

The First Version

The Original Official Version accused the PFLP-GC, a 1968 breakaway from a component of the Palestine Liberation Organization, of making the bomb and somehow placing it aboard the flight in Frankfurt. The PFLP-GC was led by Ahmed Jabril, one of the world's leading terrorists, and was headquartered in, financed by, and closely supported by, Syria.

According to the Original Official Version, the bombing was done at the behest of Iran as revenge for the U.S. shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, which claimed 290 lives.

The support for this scenario was, and remains, impressive, as the following sample indicates:

In April 1989, the FBI -- in response to criticism that it was bungling the investigation -- leaked to CBS the news that it had tentatively identified the person who unwittingly carried the bomb aboard. His name was Khalid Jaafar, a 21-year-old Lebanese-American. The report said the bomb had been planted in Jaafar's suitcase by a member of the PFLP-GC, whose name was not revealed. [NYT, April 13, 1989]

In May 1989, the State Department stated that the CIA was "confident" of the Iran-Syria-PFLP-GC account of events. [Washington Post, May 11, 1989]

On Sept. 20, 1989, The Times of London reported that "security officials from Britain, the United States and West Germany are 'totally satisfied' that it was the PFLP-GC" behind the crime.

In December 1989, Scottish investigators announced that they had "hard evidence" of the involvement of the PFLP-GC in the bombing. [NYT, Dec. 16, 1989]

A National Security Agency electronic intercept
disclosed that Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iranian interior minister, had paid Palestinian terrorists $10 million dollars to gain revenge for the downed Iranian airplane. The intercept appears to have occurred in July 1988, shortly after the downing of the Iranian plane.

Israeli intelligence also intercepted a communication between Mohtashemi and the Iranian embassy in Beirut "indicating that Iran paid for the Lockerbie bombing." [The Times, Sept. 20, 1989]

Lingering Doubts 

Though the Libyan indictment was handed down in 1991, some official experts on the case continued to have their doubts.

In February 1995, former Scottish Office minister, Alan Stewart, wrote to the British Foreign Secretary and the Lord Advocate, questioning the reliability of evidence which had led to the accusations against the two Libyans.

This move, wrote The Guardian, reflected the concern of the Scottish legal profession, reaching into the Crown Office (Scotland's equivalent of the Attorney General's Office), that the bombing may not have been the work of Libya, but of Syrians, Palestinians and Iranians. [The Guardian, Feb. 24, 1995]

Similar doubts have lingered even after the verdict.

"The judges nearly agreed with the defense," according to a news analysis by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times. "In their verdict, they tossed out much of the prosecution witnesses' evidence as false or questionable and said the prosecution had failed to prove crucial elements, including the route that the bomb suitcase took."

"It sure does look like they bent over backwards to find a way to convict, and you have to assume the political context of the case influenced them," said Michael P. Scharf, a professor at the New England School of Law. [NYT, Feb. 3, 2001]

Now, we have the Scots law professor who masterminded the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands launching his own scathing attack on the judges for finding the defendant guilty on "very, very weak" evidence.

Professor Robert Black described the decision as "astonishing" and warned that the bomber stands a better-than-average chance of being acquitted on appeal. Professor Black, a former judge with 13 years' experience and Scotland's leading expert on criminal procedure and evidence, said that in his view the Crown case had failed to comply with strict Scottish legal rules -- tougher than English law -- that evidence be corroborated.

Black declared: "I am absolutely astounded, astonished. I was extremely reluctant to believe that any Scottish judge would convict anyone, even a Libyan, on the basis of such evidence." [Electronic Telegraph UK News, Feb. 4, 2001]

So, let's hope that Megrahi is really guilty. It would be a terrible shame if he spends the rest of his life in prison because back in 1990 Washington's geopolitical plans for the Middle East needed a convenient enemy, which just happened to be his country.

William Blum is the author of Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower and Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2.

The full text of the Opinion of the Court can be found at

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