Private Eye's prolonged recording of the campaign of deceit and illusion around the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie stands as one of its greatest achievements. The evidence, carefully marshalled, blows the official case to shreds. The trial, a mockery of justice, ended with what could have been Qadaffi's first sacrafice at the altar of international respectability, the imprisonment of one his intelligence agents for a crime which he could not have committed. The repeated warnings to Washington told of a likely plot by associates of Abu Nidal to place a bomb on a Pan Am flight. The warnings were taken so seriously that US embassy staff in Moscow were warned of the threat, and none took the Pan Am 103 flight via Frankfurt, a common and popular means of transport back to the home country. The British Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, acknowledged that Britain itself had received 16 less specific threats. The State Department had received warnings of an attack by a "[t]eam of Palestinians not associated with Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)", with likely targets being "Pan Am airlines and US mil. bases".
A New York investigative company, Interfor, was hired by Pan Am and its insurers to look into the facts behind the explosion. Their findings included the suggestion that Lebanese terrorists, namely the Dalkamoni gang, had got the bomb on the airliner at Frankfurt by exploiting a security loophole. The bomb was alleged to have been in luggage which US intelligence officials believed contained drugs, which Interfor said they had been facilitating in its route from Lebanon to the US in exchange for information on US hostages in Beirut. Major Charles McKee, the head of US intelligence on the plane, had apparently been shocked by the deal, and was preparing to return home and blow the whistle. Interfor therefore infers that Pan Am 103 was sacraficed by US intelligence at least in part to do away with the whistle-blower. This would account in some measure for the appearance of suited men carrying a coffin draped in a US flag in Heathrow airport the evening Pan Am scattered in flaming ruins over Lockerbie.
Theories abound as to where and when the bomb was planted, and it has been correctly pointed out that Interfor would have every reason to concoct an explanation that would protect Pan Am from charges of negligence. On the other hand, new evidence began to emerge that perhaps the bomb originated in Malta. It seemed that Abu Talb, a well-known Palestinian terrorist associated with Dalkamonie, had visited a boutique in Malta and purchased the very clothes which were in the suitcase with the bomb. Moreover, an item of luggage was recorded on that fatal Pan Am flight as having originated from an Air Malta flight, subsequently transferred by baggage handlers at Frankfurt. There were no passengers transferring from Air Malta to Pan Am that night, so it seemed initially plausible that the bomber had let the bag go unaccompanied onto that flight. The trouble was, according to Norton Rose solicitors that the relevant documents were not designed to indicate the flight from which the bags had come. Additionally, they relied too heavily on the memory of overworked baggage-handlers. And, even if accurate, they did not preclude the possibility that the suspect bag had in fact been planted in Frankfurt airport. A compelling theory was based therefore on slender threads of evidence.
Enter Libya (boo hiss!). Vincent Cannistraro, the man in charge of the Lockerbie investigation in the US, had been involved in directing the Reagan administration's vendetta against Libya during the 1980s. His intellectual handiwork laid the basis for a new charge, emerging in 1991, that Abdel Bassett Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifah Fhimah, two Libyan airline officials, had planted the bomb at Malta. One of the chief reasons for blaming Libya was that the timers which the Swiss were alleged to have sold to the Libyans were similar to the timer fragment retrieved from Lockerbie searches. Several sources report this differently, but the link's credibility at any rate depended upon the suggestion that the Swiss had only ever supplied these timers to Libya, a thought considerably diluted by the revelation that the East German Stasi had also been supplied with such timers - not an unknown source of military materials once the Eastern Bloc fell.
Nevertheless, the finger remained pointing firmly at Libya, despite all indications that other forces had been at work, and despite the flimsiness of the evidence against the two supposed culprits. Economic sanctions were weakly applied to Libya, whom the US called upon to submit the pair for trial. Libya, unapprised of any evidence against them, refused to do so. They did, however, offer to allow the men to stand trial in a neutral country like Holland or Switzerland, a plan rejected by the US and Britain for almost a decade. The relatives of victims wrote repeatedly to the authorities to ask for a trial in a neutral country, but no reply was forthcoming.
When the trial finally went ahead, its procedure was farcical, vital evidence was not heard, the most compromised evidence was allowed to stand. Several witnesses, it transpired, had been paid by the US. And, what is more, the Maltese boutique owner I referred to earlier as having incriminated Abu Talb had decided that al-Megrahi was the man he had served, and testified as such. On such flimsy grounds as these, Megrahi was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and Col Qadaffi began his journey back into the hearts of decent folks by accepting responsibility for the attacks and paying compensation to the victims - many of whom were, justifiably, loathe to accept it. It would not be the last time that Libya would confess to crimes not of its making.
Anyway, and entirely unsurprisingly, it has now emerged that the prosecution suppressed vital evidence from German police at the trial. While the American families of the victims accepted the verdict at the time, the Scottish families did not. Jim Swire and others were very, very sceptical and believed that a corrupt deal had been cut. He now says: "We have always believed that the man in jail for the bombing should not be there. This seems to be a very important step in proving that and getting justice for the victims of the bombing."