Lockerbie bomber Megrahi: conspiracy theories persist

The release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasit al-Megrahi, the Libyan agent convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, has rekindled conspiracy theories that he was innocent. Investigators say they can only scratch their heads.

Amr Nabil/AP/File
In this Aug. 2009 file photo, Libyans surround the convoy of Abdelbasat al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, as they hold posters showing his image and Scottish flags upon his arrival at an airport in Tripoli, Libya.

Last week Abdelbasat al-Megrahi, the convicted murderer of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, celebrated the first anniversary of his release on "compassionate" grounds by the Scottish government at his lavish home near Tripoli.

Mr. Megrahi was said to have terminal cancer and three months to live at the time of his release by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and the anniversary brought a flurry of press coverage about his involvement in one of the worst terrorist attacks in history.

The fact that the former Libyan intelligence agent has now lived nine months longer than doctors predicted has rekindled conspiracy theories of Megrahi's innocence. The thinking goes that "compassion" for Megrahi was merely a pretext to release a man secretly known to be innocent without having to make embarrassing admissions of error.

But to Richard Marquise, the lead FBI investigator into the bombing, the public doubts expressed about Megrahi, who was convicted by a tribunal of three Scottish judges in 2001, are puzzling and frustrating. In his 31 years at the FBI, Mr. Marquise said he's rarely seen a "stronger circumstantial case" than the one against Megrahi, who was also caught repeatedly lying to investigators and reporters. "There's nobody else that I'm aware of anywhere in the world that has such evidence pointing to their guilt," he says.

Another Libyan agent tried along with Megrahi was acquitted. Megrahi was found guilty of planting the explosive device in a suitcase that was placed on an Air Malta flight originating in that country and tagged for transfer to the Pan Am flight. Investigators believe it was on the orders of Libyan intelligence.

Marquise says that "there were other people that we strongly believed were involved in terms of the planning process and ordering process.... Megrahi was the guy who was assigned to get it done. We think at least six were probably involved if you only had to make an intelligence case, but in terms of making a criminal case, we didn't have strong enough evidence."

Libya later said it was responsible for the bombing and promised to pay out to $2.7 billion to the families of the victims. Recently, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi said that the country accepted guilt to get out from under UN sanctions, and had not been truthful when it said it was responsible.

But many remain unconvinced -- though, as Marquise and others point out, there's no evidence to support any of a myriad of alternative theories about his guilt. One popular alternative theory, advanced most recently by The Herald newspaper of Scotland on Friday, is that Mohammed Abu Talb, an Egyptian convicted of carrying out other attacks in Europe in the early 1980s on behalf of a Palestinian group, carried out the bombing.

The Herald writes that the "Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) is understood to have uncovered new evidence that strengthens the case against Talb" without actually explaining how this is "understood" or what additional evidence, if any, exists to tie him to the murders. The article also asserts that Mr. Talb was "arrested in connection with the bombing of Pan Am flight 103" in 1989.

Marquise says that last assertion is false and that Talb's arrest in 1989 dealt with a different terrorism case. While Megrahi was proven to have traveled to Malta on a false passport (which he had originally lied about), and to ahve been there on the date that the explosive was placed on the plane, Talb was in Sweden at the time.

The key piece of evidence against Megrahi was a fragment of the timer used for the bomb at Lockerbie, which was of an unusual design. "There were maybe as many as 25 of these timers ever made -- 20 really with a couple of circuit boards left over," says Marquise. "All 20 were hand-delivered to Libyan intelligence."

Another theory floating about is that the British government squashed possibly exculpatory evidence about Megrahi at the time of his trial and has been hiding it ever since. The Guardian newspaper quoted a Scottish human rights lawyer last week as saying that there is a "secret intelligence report" that "is believed to cast serious doubts on prosecution claims that Megrahi used a specific Swiss timer for the bomb."

Again, it isn't clear who believes this or how they could possibly know such the contents of a "secret" document.

"I don’t know if some of these people are reading too many of these spy novels or what," says William Chornyak, another former FBI investigator. "But a lot of the people making these suppositions simply weren't there. It's easy to say, 'I'm going to assume there's some secret document' ... that proves Megrahi is innocent. But where is the document?"

Mr. Chonyak says he's "absolutely" convinced that Megrahi's conviction was accurate. "The evidence is pretty specific, the guy even admitted using a phony passport, and he was caught lying. If a guy is going to lie in one instance, and you have the documentation that proves he lied, he’s going to continue to lie."

"I feel bad for the families," says Marquise. "They got partial justice."

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