The International Criminal Court (ICC) on February 7 ordered the Libyan government to immediately hand over former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi for his alleged role in orchestrating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Libya appealed, as it aims to try Muammar Qadhafi’s former right hand man in front of a home crowd.
“Libya’s rebel authorities need to understand that the days of show trials and summary executions are over,” said Senussi’s British defense lawyer Ben Emmerson, who is currently a judge on the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and previously served as a Special Rapporteur on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.
Emmerson’s vast experience makes his choice of words all the more ironic, as the original Lockerbie trial was anything but a showcase for international justice and, even today, makes embarrassing reading for anyone still cherishing a dash of hope for a legal procedure untainted by the murky world of politics and intelligence.
The notorious trial took place at a former United States Air Force base in the Netherlands, under Scottish law and presided over by three Scottish judges. In January 2001, they sentenced Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to life imprisonment for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people.
The main evidence linking Libya to the bombing is a fragment of a timing device, used to detonate the suitcase filled with explosives aboard Flight 103. A US Federal Bureau of Investigation agent claimed such timers had been exclusively sold to Libya, even though the device’s Swiss manufacturer himself testified that he had also sold them to the former East Germany.
The three wise Scotsmen disqualified the latter as a reliable witness and judged Libyan involvement to be “proven beyond reasonable doubt”. But the American policeman turned out to have a rather dubious reputation as an expert witness in previous court cases. What’s more, a retired Scottish police officer in 2005 claimed that the timer’s fragment, which was only found three weeks into the investigation, had been planted by America’s Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA had been on the Lockerbie case from the start.
Having established a link between Libya and the bombing device, the judges still had to prove Megrahi was the man who did the job. They did so, based on the clothes that were inside the suitcase. Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper from Malta, testified that Megrahi “resembled” the customer who, 10 years earlier (!!), had bought the clothes in his shop, even though in 19 pre-trial statements Gauci had failed to identify Megrahi.
It is a fact that the bomb was brought aboard Flight 103 in an unaccompanied suitcase at Frankfurt Airport. Yet, the German airport authorities claimed the suitcase “may” have originated in Malta. The Luga Airport authorities in Malta, however, testified that there had been no unaccompanied luggage on Flight KM180, the only flight that had left Malta for Frankfurt earlier that day. The only thing that links Megrahi to the suitcase (which may or may not have originated in Malta) was his presence at Luga airport, where he boarded a flight around the same time as Flight KM180 left for Frankfurt. “If the unaccompanied bag was launched from Luga, the method by which it was done is not established,” the verdict reads. Nevertheless, the three judges sentenced Megrahi to a life behind bars. He was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds and in 2012 died of cancer. Until his death, he maintained his innocence. For what it is worth, about half a library full of books claim Libya was but a scapegoat, while the actual perpetrators were a group of Palestinian guns for hire acting on behalf of Iran.
Being a leading international lawyer, Emmerson most probably is well aware of the Lockerbie trial’s curious course of events. Yet, as a true lawyer, his only interest is the best possible defense and the well-being of his client. And, from Senussi’s point of view, it is surely better to be jailed abroad for a crime he did not commit than to face certain death for the long list of hideous crimes he did commit at home.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist