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Panel questions '01 Lockerbie conviction

Libyan who got a life sentence in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 merits new appeal, says a Scottish commission.

June 29, 2007|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — A former Libyan intelligence agent convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice" and should be granted a new appeal, a Scottish judicial panel ruled Thursday.

Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi was found guilty of murder in the December 1988 bombing, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans. He was convicted in 2001 and has been serving a life sentence in a prison near Glasgow. Megrahi has long said he is innocent, and he took the case to the independent Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission after a previous appeal was denied.

The commission spent three years and $2 million examining evidence before determining that there was sufficient doubt to warrant an appeal.

"Some of what we have discovered may imply innocence. Some of what we have discovered may imply guilt. However, such matters are for a court to decide," said the Rev. Graham Forbes, the commission's chairman. "The commission is of the view, based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court, that the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice."

At the original trial, three Scottish judges convicted Megrahi of planting an unaccompanied suitcase containing a bomb-laden radio cassette player aboard the flight. His codefendant, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.

The commission rejected claims by Megrahi's supporters and lawyers of CIA evidence tampering, or of an Iranian-backed plot carried out by Palestinians, as well as most points of contention.

The panel based its grounds for appeal on the reliability of testimony from one witness, and on doubts relating to clothes Megrahi allegedly bought in Malta on Dec. 7, 1988, that were inside the suitcase containing the bomb. The panel said there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the purchase took place Dec. 7, and said there was no evidence Megrahi was in Malta before that.

Furthermore, the commission said the Maltese shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as the customer had already seen a photograph of him in a magazine article linking him to the bombing, thereby tainting the identification.

Megrahi issued a statement through his lawyer again declaring his innocence.

"I reiterate today what I have been saying since I was first indicted in 1991: I was not involved in the Lockerbie bombing in any way whatsoever," he said. "I am confident that when the full picture is put before the ultimate arbiters, the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary, I shall finally be recognized as an innocent man."

Ted Reina of La Palma, whose daughter Jocelyn was killed in the crash, called the ruling "very upsetting."

"When you lose a child and it keeps coming up every few years, it's like opening up the wound again," Reina, a retiree who represents West Coast families for the "Victims of Pan Am Flight 103" lobby group, said in a telephone interview. "We are not looking for revenge, we are looking for justice. We know that the perpetrator did not act alone, but with the Libyan government's approval."

During the trial, Megrahi's lawyers argued that Palestinian splinter groups based in Syria were responsible for the bombing and that Iran was behind the plot. Many of Megrahi's supporters agree and charge that the United States somehow manipulated evidence to incriminate Libya to avoid conflict with Iran and Syria in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The government of Libya agreed to pay billions of dollars in compensation to families of the Lockerbie victims in 2003 as part of a deal for lifting United Nations sanctions against the country, but the government has never admitted guilt.

Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, dismissed the evidence-tampering theory as improbable but added, "We also have to remember that the relations between state sponsors [of terrorism] and the large number of groups they funded from time to time were quite complex.

"The idea you get sometimes is that it has to be either a Libyan state organization or a group operating independently. But ... state sponsors often work with groups hand in hand."

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Times staff writers Kim Murphy in London, Marjorie Miller in Paris and Maggie Farley in New York contributed to this report.

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