Lockerbie: the quest for truth

This article, by Jim Swire, was published in the Summer 2014 edition of Perspectives, it is republished here in light of recent interest in the case.

Jim Swire lost his daughter Flora in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie some 25 years ago. Despite the conviction of the Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in a Scottish court trial held in the Netherlands, the campaign for the truth of what really happened goes on.

“On a huge Hill cragged and steep TRUTH stands, and he that would reach her about must, and about must go.” John Donne, 1572–1631.

The shock of last November’s helicopter crash in Glasgow must have reminded many of the horror that descended upon the little town of Lockerbie way back in late December 1988, and there is a strong link between them. In Glasgow passers-by and those involved but surviving gave us a vivid picture of the willingness of ordinary people in Scotland to help each other. Likewise the people of Lockerbie, in spite of the shock and loss in their own community showed us relatives the tenderness and love of those drawn together by a common tragedy.

Yet in the case of Lockerbie it was our Scottish investigating police, later compounded by our Scottish Crown Office, who kept concealed in their files till 2011(1), after the court verdict had been reached, that before the loading of the plane that fell upon Lockerbie that night, Heathrow had been broken into close by to where the bags were to be loaded for the flight 16 hours later, and that despite warnings of increased risk to American aircraft, no effort had been made to discover the intruder or his motive.

But greater powers than Scotland’s were also involved. We did not listen carefully enough to what some were warning us about in the wider world.

Nelson Mandela had cautioned us that in a trial “No one country should be complainant, prosecutor and judge”, yet Scotland was handed all three roles.

The trial started in May 2000, but long before that we had received disquieting information that there might be improper political pressures to undermine our search for truth. Early in 1990 our group had been called to the US embassy in London to hear the findings of a US Presidential inquiry into Lockerbie. In a gap in the proceedings in a quiet aside to one of us a US official said “Your Government and ours know exactly what happened but they’re never going to tell”.

Another blow was added in 1993, two years after the issue of indictments against the two Libyans, through the memoirs of the late Lady Thatcher who had supported the USAF bombing of Libya in 1986. She wrote of it: “It turned out to be a more decisive blow against Libyan sponsored terrorism than I could ever have imagined … the much-vaunted Libyan counter attack did not and could not take place”. Which nation then was responsible for Lockerbie?

Any nation wielding great power, such as our American cousins do, will sometimes attract revenge as it carves its way among other nations. Lockerbie, like so many other outrages, was a revenge attack, upon an American aircraft.

Two possible origins for revenge are particularly relevant:

1) The bombing of Tripoli by the USAF in 1986 with the active support of our Prime Minister, the late Lady Thatcher.

2) The destruction of Iran Air flight 655 in the Gulf five months before Lockerbie, by a rocket fired from the USS Vincennes. This tragedy was coupled to spectacular mismanagement by America of Iran’s ensuing lust for revenge.

So close has been the “special relationship” between America and our country that hatreds elicited by one may be seen as the responsibility of both.

Yet it is always the prime responsibility of a sovereign State to protect its own citizens from harm.

Evidence assembled for and only partly used in the court case has leaked out into the public domain, and been seized upon by amateur but truth-hungry relatives. It looks to us now as though the prosecution of the Libyan Megrahi should never have been undertaken.

Worse, far worse, the revenge attack that ended 270 innocent lives in the skies above Lockerbie and on the ground below had been predicted and was preventable.

I think of my daughter Flora pressing eagerly down those long Heathrow corridors that evening on her way to see her American boyfriend for Christmas, and submitting readily to the routine security checks, when as we now know, despite advance warnings of increased terrorist risks to American flights, the airport had decided to take no action to investigate the break-in. I conjure up a lurking terrorist resting and unmolested on airside and listening to the eager footsteps and chatter of his unsuspecting victims. This remains a source of fury and fuels our campaign 25 years later. Surely under these circumstances the suspension of outgoing flights until the break-in had been fully investigated was as elementary as it was mandatory? Heathrow’s nightwatchman who had found the break-in, had worked at the airport for 17 years and called it the worst security breach he had seen. Yet no public inquiry was called nor sanctions placed upon the airport for its lethargy. Flora too sought truth; she hated hypocrisy.

A brief summary of the trial indicates the importance of the break-in.


Lockerbie was clearly a revenge attack; the court had to decide who was getting revenge for what.

The prosecution case was that Megrahi of Libya had sent the bomb unaccompanied on a circuitous route via Frankfurt to Heathrow. There was no proof as to how the bomb might have been smuggled aboard in Malta, but obviously such a route required the use of a long-running timer in the bomb if it was to survive the lengthy journey and explode after leaving Heathrow. According to the prosecution a small fragment of timer circuit board labelled “PT35b” was found in the bombed wreckage and “in all respects” matched one corner of timer circuit boards in possession of the Libyan regime. These timers would have enabled the bomb to be set, even from Malta, to explode over mid Atlantic. The origin of the bomb from Malta was also supported by the remains of Maltese-originated clothing allegedly bought in Malta by Megrahi, and found in the same police evidence bag as “PT35b”. The defence wanted to show that a Syrian group – the PFLPGC – acting as mercenaries for Iran, had made and supplied a very different type of bomb. This type of bomb had been used “successfully” by the group several times before Lockerbie, to destroy or damage aircraft in flight. They contained an air pressure sensitive switch which kept them inactive at ground level, but if put aboard an aircraft, they would sense the ear-popping drop in pressure after the plane had been climbing for about seven minutes, and then start a simple non-adjustable timer running of a type unique to the PFLP-GC in Damascus but incapable of running for more than roughly half an hour before exploding the charge. These bombs were therefore unalterably locked following take-off to seven plus about 30 minutes before they would explode, but by the same token such a bomb could only have been put aboard at the airport of origin of the flight (Heathrow), since if put aboard an incoming flight when fully armed, they would have exploded before reaching Heathrow.

The Lockerbie flight had lasted 38 minutes after leaving Heathrow.

The case revolved round which type of bomb had been used, and the significance of the Maltese clothing.

The court did hear that the baggage handler at Heathrow (John Bedford), when he returned from a tea break to the container he had been loading for the Pan Am Lockerbie flight, saw a suitcase which he had not loaded and which was now on the floor of the container close to the very corner of that container which would fit against the fuselage skin of the aircraft. The court was kept unaware of the break-in, nor did it learn where the extra suitcase might have come from.

Had the information about the break-in been shared with the defence before the trial, this surely would have aroused “reasonable doubt” about the device having arrived from Frankfurt, particularly since Bedford saw that mysterious case well before the Frankfurt flight had even landed. He did not remove nor reposition it and the container was then filled up with the bags from Frankfurt on top of the bags which Bedford had seen.

Both sides accepted that the bomb they favoured had contained approximately 400–450 grams of Semtex, just capable of being crammed into a tape recorder, but very puny for the task of destroying a robust 747. To be certain of total destruction a terrorist would have needed to ensure that his device was close to the vulnerable fuselage skin of the aircraft. That could only be achieved at Heathrow. Analysis of baggage surrounding the actual point of explosion showed how abruptly the force of such an explosion was damped down by neighbouring bags and their mostly soft contents. The position of the bomb relative to the fuselage skin was crucial.

The man from whom the clothing had been bought in Malta was called Tony Gauchi. He and his brother Paul were in line to receive substantial payments from the US Justice Department through their “Rewards for Justice” programme provided their evidence led to the conviction of Megrahi/Fahima. The Zeist court had failed to review the contents of a Scottish policeman’s diary showing the extent to which the Gauchi brothers were aware of this potential reward before giving evidence in the court: this also denied the court full knowledge of whether the identification by Mr Gauchi of Mr Megrahi as the buyer of the clothing conformed to the standards of Scottish Criminal law. Serious distortion of evidence of the dates of the clothes being bought was necessary to avoid concluding that it had in fact been bought on a day when Megrahi was known not to have been in Malta.


Sometimes I think that we relatives have been incredibly slow to realise that there might be real world reasons for reaching a verdict which was convenient to the political needs of a country rather than to the needs of truth and justice. Within four days of the issue of the Libyan indictments Iranian-backed groups started to release American hostages: President Bush had campaigned for office on getting those hostages back.

But there have also been rich rewards for us since the trial in encountering those who have realised the deception too.

The first person I met afterwards was Professor Robert Black QC, emeritus professor of Scots law at Edinburgh. Not only was he one of Scotland’s leading legal brains, but he had also taken a central role in the devising and setting up of the special neutral country trial at Zeist, it was clear at once that he did not believe that the proceedings had justified the verdict. His own concept had been subverted to become a monumental miscarriage of justice: a disgrace to the very system to which his life had been devoted. It seemed we were not after all the only people to find the verdict incomprehensible. He cannot know the relief that the knowledge that far more erudite people than us, the lay and obsessed relatives, felt excluded from the truth by that verdict.

Soon to follow were the findings of the UN special observer to the trial, Professor Hans Koechler of Vienna, who also found the proceedings fatally flawed. So many others, have studied the evidence since and their ranks continually expand, bless them all. Two of the most significant have been women. Solicitor Gareth Peirce at once drew our attention to the disastrous series of miscarriages of justice following events in Northern Ireland, and the similarities with the forensic provision for Zeist. She also injected us with the unshakeable knowledge that we do indeed have an absolute right to the truth over these dreadful murders. Her early article about Lockerbie was eye opening2 .

Then came an academic from Bradford, Davina Miller. She had been researching America’s “choice of enemies” in the Middle East, but came across the Lockerbie material. The title of her article “Who knows about this?” reflects her astonishment that the trial had blamed Megrahi and his country. By 2011 she was also able to reference an amazing series of mainly US intelligence documents which showed an inexplicable sudden switch from probing Iran’s known role, to acceptance that it was to be laid at Colonel Gaddafi’s door.

No one yet knows how the above-mentioned circuit board fragment (“PT35b”) came to be found in that Scottish police evidence bag. Astonishingly it has now emerged that the metallic plating on the fragment simply does not match that on the Libyan-owned timers. It was plated by a process which the makers of the Swiss timers Libya owned had not even installed in their factory before 1988. The forensic expert advising the prosecution had written in a note to his examination of that fragment that he had realised the discrepancy in the plating, yet he told the court in evidence that the fragment and the Libyan boards were “similar in all respects.”

The trials relating to the Guildford four and the Birmingham six were similarly bedevilled by distortion or suppression of forensic evidence and convicted the innocent. Similarly at Hillsborough, distortion and suppression of truth by the police blamed the innocent bystanders.

Early on the morning of the day in 2012 when the book Megrahi: you are my jury was published, revealing as it did that the fragment “PT35b” simply could never have been part of one of the Libyan owned timers because of the plating anomaly, Downing Street released a claim that the book was “an insult to the relatives”. The author of the book tells me that there was no legitimate way that Downing Street could have had access to the file of the book in advance – indeed I had only been allowed to read it myself through the night before launch, in a personally handed-over copy. What is the secret that still drives our State to seek to protect the now clearly false story told in the court?

What if our State were to acquiesce in the perversion of our justice systems to suit the needs of the aspiring president of another State? What was the real origin of the fragment “PT35b”?, how did it enter that Scottish police evidence bag?

From Lady Thatcher’s day, when Lord Parkinson went to ask her cabinet on our behalf for an inquiry and returned with a metaphorical black eye from a blow from a handbag, we have been repeatedly refused any inquiry in either England or Scotland, always under the rubric of the wonderful criminal investigation and trial. What is it that our States know but still hide from us, the relatives? No recent catastrophe of such proportions has ever been denied an inquiry for twenty-five years.

The opacity of governments and the adherence to falsehood are deeply worrying. What sort of society have we become that we host gigantic intelligence systems spying even on our own innocent citizens, and yet when prevention fails, and some of those innocent citizens are murdered, deny transparency and objective re-examination of the facts to those of their citizens most devastated by that failure?

Dr Jim Swire has campaigned tirelessly for the truth to be revealed about the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 onto Lockerbie.

This article was written before the decision of relatives of some of the Lockerbie victims to launch a request for a further appeal against the Megrahi verdict to the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission.


1. Ex Chief Constable Patrick Shearer: letter to Dr Jim Swire, 2 April 2012.
2. Gareth Peirce, London Review of Books, “The framing of Al Megrahi”.
3. Davina Miller, Taylor & Francis Online Defense & Security Analysis, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2011.

0 comments on “Lockerbie: the quest for truth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *