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Posthumous appeal against Lockerbie bomber’s conviction ends; judges mull ruling

Justices say will issue decision as soon as possible on Abdelbaset Mohmet Al-Megrahi, whose family insists he was innocent of airline bombing that killed 270

A policeman walking away from the damaged cockpit of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, with 259 passengers on board, December 22, 1988. (ROY LETKEY/AFP)
A policeman walking away from the damaged cockpit of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, with 259 passengers on board, December 22, 1988. (ROY LETKEY/AFP)

GLASGOW, United Kingdom — Five senior judges on Thursday began deliberating their ruling in a posthumous appeal against the conviction of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmet Al-Megrahi.

Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Justice General Colin Sutherland, said the panel would issue a written opinion “as soon as it possibly can” after three days of submissions.

The former Libyan intelligence officer Megrahi was the only person convicted for the bombing Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.

A total of 270 people were killed, including 11 on the ground, in what remains Britain’s worst terrorist attack.

Megrahi was jailed for life in 2001 and was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he had terminal cancer. He maintained his innocence until his death in 2012. His family has taken on the case and in March won the right to take it back to court.

Related: Who made the bomb? The full truth about Lockerbie is still not being told

An independent criminal cases review body said a miscarriage of justice may have occurred on the grounds of “unreasonable verdict” and the withholding of evidence from the defense.

But on Thursday, the five judges on the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh were told in a remote hearing that the three judges who tried and convicted Megrahi were entitled to infer he was involved.

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi at a hospital in Tripoli, September 9, 2009. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

Lawyer Ronald Clancy said Megrahi’s use of a false passport was part of a “significant chapter of evidence” supporting his involvement in the atrocity.

Megrahi used the document to travel to Malta, from where a plane carrying the bomb departed before the attack, and which was “connected to the planting of the device.”

“We say that was an entirely legitimate inference to draw, certainly well within the range of inferences open to a reasonable jury,” he told the court.

‘Highly prejudicial’

Claire Mitchell, representing the family, had argued the process used to identify Megrahi was “highly prejudicial” and should not have been given the weight that it was.

A key witness had seen a photograph of Megrahi in a magazine article suggesting his involvement shortly before the trial, she said on Wednesday.

She also said prosecutors in the trial, which was held under Scots law at a special court in the Netherlands, had not proved Megrahi bought the clothing found in the bomb suitcase.

There was doubt, too, about the dates of his visit to Malta and as such “no reasonable jury” could have returned a guilty verdict, she added.

Clancy countered claims that the identification witness — Maltese shop owner Tony Gauci — was motivated by a possible reward as he was “not compensated.”

The High Court has upheld a secrecy order signed in August by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to withhold intelligence documents related to the case on national security grounds.

His predecessor in 2008, David Miliband, did the same before Megrahi’s second appeal, that was later abandoned after his diagnosis with terminal cancer.

The Megrahi family, whose case is supported by some of the victims’ families, believe the documents are central to proving he was not involved.

It has been claimed Iran used a Syria-based Palestinian proxy to build the bomb that downed the Boeing 747 as it traveled from London to New York.

Iran is said to have wanted revenge for a US Navy strike on an Iranian Airbus six months earlier in which 290 people died.

Head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command Ahmad Jibril attends a conference in Tehran, Iran, February 21, 2017. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

In 2014 the Al Jazeera network broadcast a documentary in which former Iranian intelligence officer Abolghasem Mesbah, defected to Germany in the 1990s, revealed that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, ordered the attack on Flight 103.

Documents obtained for the film, titled “Lockerbie: What Really Happened?”, suggest that the bombers themselves belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

A similar conclusion was relayed to The Times of Israel in December 2013, when a former senior member of the Israeli security establishment said he was certain the bombing was carried out by Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC.

The Israeli source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel was “listening in” during the months prior to the December 21, 1988 bombing on preparations for what “we thought was a plan to target an Israeli plane” and that it was “clear that Jibril prepared the operation.”

Abolghasem Mesbahi, who once reported directly to former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said to Al Jazeera, “Iran decided to retaliate as soon as possible. The decision was made by the whole system in Iran and confirmed by Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Initial UK-US investigations into the bombing indicated that Jibril’s pro-Syrian PFLP-GC had carried it out.

Once a leading Syrian army bomb-maker, his PFLP-GC had a history of hijacking and blowing up airplanes, and he had publicly warned two years before the Lockerbie blast that “there will be no safety for any traveler on an Israeli or US airliner.”

As early as 1970, Jibril had smuggled barometric pressure devices onto airliners, claiming responsibility for blowing up a Swissair flight to Tel Aviv in this fashion in February, 1970, with the deaths of all 47 people on board.

A member of the public looks at the main memorial stone in memory of the victims of Pan Am flight 103 bombing, in the garden of remembrance at Dryfesdale Cemetery, near Lockerbie, Scotland. December 21, 2013. (Scott Heppell/AP)

Two months before the Lockerbie bombing, Jibril’s right-hand man Hafez Dalkamouni was arrested by German police along with other members of a PFLP-GC cell found to be in possession of several barometric pressure explosive devices, built into Toshiba radio-recorders, similar though not identical to the device that investigators subsequently established was used in the Lockerbie bombing.

Unexpectedly, however, the British-American investigation subsequently shifted focus to Libya, largely on the strength of a tiny fragment of a timing device ostensibly discovered among the bombing debris, a device which Megrahi’s trial was told had been incontrovertibly traced to Libya.

The source who spoke to The Times of Israel asserted that the trial at which Megrahi was convicted, held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, “did not rule out” that Jibril organized the bombing on Gaddafi’s behalf.

Although other reports have suggested that both Jibril and Dalkamouni visited Tehran after the Iran Air plane was downed and ahead of the Lockerbie bombing to discuss carrying out the attack, and that Jibril was paid $11 million by Iran days after the bombing, the Israeli source said Israel had “no proof” of an Iranian role.

Jibril has always denied any part in the Lockerbie bombing.

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