Review decision may reopen Lockerbie case

LONDON Thu Jun 28, 2007 2:09am EDT

A December 23, 1988 file photo shows Scottish rescue workers and crash investigators search the area around the cockpit of Pan Am flight 103 in a farmer's field east of Lockerbie, Scotland. A Libyan man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing will find out on Thursday if he can appeal, potentially throwing the case wide open after nearly two decades. REUTERS/Greg Bos

A December 23, 1988 file photo shows Scottish rescue workers and crash investigators search the area around the cockpit of Pan Am flight 103 in a farmer's field east of Lockerbie, Scotland. A Libyan man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing will find out on Thursday if he can appeal, potentially throwing the case wide open after nearly two decades.

Credit: Reuters/Greg Bos

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LONDON (Reuters) - A Libyan man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing will find out on Thursday if he can appeal, potentially throwing the case wide open after nearly two decades.

An independent Scottish review commission will announce at noon (1100 GMT) whether it will refer the case of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to the High Court as a possible miscarriage of justice.

Recent history suggests a Megrahi appeal would have a good chance of success -- 25 out of 39 cases, or 64 percent of those settled after being referred by the commission to the High Court, have ended with appeals being granted.

Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was found guilty in 2001 of the bombing of a Pan Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people. He is serving a life sentence in Scotland.

Three Scottish judges, trying him at a special court in the Netherlands, acknowledged the difficulty of the evidence as they convicted him and acquitted his Libyan co-defendant.

"We are aware that in relation to certain aspects of the case there are a number of uncertainties and qualifications," they said in their ruling.

"However,... we are satisfied that the evidence... does fit together to form a real and convincing pattern."

The judges decided that the evidence showed the bomb was placed aboard a plane in Malta and transferred onto a Pan Am 'feeder' flight at Frankfurt before ending up on Flight 103 from London Heathrow to New York on December 21, 1988.

But critics have long argued the case was full of holes. Among other things, they question the reliability of the witness who identified Megrahi, the forensic evidence and whether the bomb was really loaded in Malta or at Heathrow.

"My view is that no reasonable tribunal, applying the rules of evidence, law and procedure, could and should have convicted him," said Robert Black, professor emeritus of Scottish law at the University of Edinburgh.

Libya, seeking international rehabilitation after Washington had branded it for years a rogue state, has paid more than $2 billion in compensation to victims' relatives since telling the United Nations in 2003 it "accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials".

But lawyers and analysts say that carefully worded formula could enable Libya to deny any role if Megrahi's conviction were eventually quashed. Some believe it may even demand compensation from the United States and Britain.

Ever since the bombing, alternative theories have focused on the possible involvement of an Arab militant group, the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), acting at the behest of Iran.

Five months before Lockerbie, the U.S. navy mistakenly shot down an Iranian Airbus in the Gulf, killing 290 people.

"Iran had the most potent motive of anybody for destroying an American airliner," said Jim Swire, a Briton whose daughter Flora died on Flight 103 and who speaks on behalf of victims' relatives.

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