Doubts Persist About Lockerbie Evidence

By T. R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday , April 30, 2000 ; A01

LONDON –– After interviewing thousands of witnesses and collecting 200,000 bits of evidence in one of the world's largest criminal inquiries, investigators in the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing will finally bring their case against two alleged Libyan terrorists to court this week. But in the final months before the trial, unforeseen doubts have arisen about whether the detective work that led to the suspects will be strong enough to result in their conviction on charges of mass murder and conspiracy.

Prosecutors say they have the right men and the evidence to convict them, but observers who have followed the probe over the past decade warn that there are holes in the case. Information from several key witnesses that investigators counted on now appears to be problematic. And families of some of the 270 victims have alleged that the two defendants were set up as political fall guys to distract attention from higher-ups who actually ordered the destruction of an American passenger jet, including, perhaps, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"I think most Americans just assume that since these two Libyans were indicted, the prosecutors have a cast-iron case," said Robert Black, a law professor at Edinburgh University who has worked with Libya, the United States and Britain on the case. "But some of the evidence is less clear-cut than it once appeared to be. Some of the witnesses are backtracking."

Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, scattering debris over hundreds of miles. As investigators set out to solve the mystery of the blast, their probe grew to encompass hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, many smaller than a thumbnail. But the key break, investigators say, came when a man in Scotland took his dog for a walk.

During that morning stroll, the man found a battered T-shirt with a label from a shop in Sliema, a port town on the Mediterranean island of Malta. A strange item to stumble across in the Scottish woods, he thought, so he took it to police. Investigators concluded the shirt had fallen from Pan Am 103. More importantly, they found two fragments of a bomb timer embedded in the fabric.

The slivers of that timer led investigators to a Swiss man named Edwin Bollier. His company, Mebo Telecommunications, made electronic timers that have been used by Libya to trigger explosions. Bollier told Scottish investigators and the FBI that the two fragments of electronic circuit board found in the T-shirt came from a timer he had sold to the Libyan government. That provided an essential link between the Lockerbie bomb and the Libyans.

But in an interview last week, Bollier said he had made that identification strictly from photographs. When he was finally shown the actual piece of evidence last September--nine years after he was first interviewed--he said he concluded that "these fragments were never part of our electronic equipment." And that's what he intends to say at the trial.

A second potential problem for the prosecution is that the FBI agent who argued most vociferously for the Switzerland-to-Libya connection at the heart of the Lockerbie case was later charged with manipulating evidence in other cases to favor prosecutors. The FBI says he has left the bureau, and defense attorneys have indicated they want to grill him at the trial.

But the prosecution's biggest hurdle, according to Black, is that the amazing detective story that led to the indictments may be too amazing for the three Scottish judges, who will be hearing the case without a jury.

"It's a fantastic scenario, but it's an unlikely one at several points," the law professor said. "This chap just happens to find tiny pieces of a circuit board in the Scottish woods. The key suitcase is supposed to have come from Air Malta, but there's no record of it at all--and Air Malta keeps meticulous records."

There's little dispute, though, about the basic elements of the Lockerbie explosion and its horrific result.

With a full load of passengers amid the pre-Christmas rush, Pan Am's Frankfurt-London-New York flight was a half-hour late leaving London's Heathrow Airport on the evening of Dec. 21, 1988. Aboard were 189 Americans--including dozens of students heading home for vacation--and people from 20 other countries.

Half an hour into the flight, the Boeing 747 suddenly disappeared from radar screens, having blown to pieces and plummeted to earth, carrying all 259 people aboard to their deaths. Six miles below, in the town of Lockerbie, a lethal rain of wings, engines, luggage, fuel and falling bodies from the doomed plane killed another 11 people on the ground.

The plane's nose section, bearing its gentle name, "Maid of the Seas," plopped onto a frozen field largely intact. But almost everything else was shattered and scattered by the winter winds; police spent months searching a 40-mile radius around the nose, combing the soil for scraps of airplane, luggage, clothing or documents.

Fairly early on, police found remnants of a Toshiba radio-cassette player that bore traces of the Czech-made plastic explosive Semtex. That rang a loud bell for anti-terrorist experts, because a Syria-based splinter group of Palestinian terrorists had built bombs in the past by stuffing Toshiba radios with Semtex. For months, Lockerbie investigators focused on Mohammed Abu Talb, the head of the splinter group, but he denied involvement.

Meanwhile, the plane was slowly reassembled in a Royal Air Force hangar. As each new shard was glued in place, it became clear that a hole the size of a dinner plate had been blown in the fuselage beside cargo container AVE 4041. Airline records showed that the baggage in that container included a brown Samsonite suitcase. Fragments of plastic from the Toshiba radio were embedded in the remains of that suitcase.

Cargo container AVE 4041 had been loaded on the flight in Frankfurt. And one of the New York-bound bags in that container had been transferred from an Air Malta flight. It was the brown Samsonite--the only bag aboard that had not been checked in by a passenger on the plane.

A vague path was emerging, but there was still no connection to any group or person. Then, 18 months after the explosion, in a forest about 80 miles from Lockerbie, the man walking his dog found the Maltese T-shirt with the timer fragments in it. Fabric samples suggested that the shirt had been packed in the Samsonite bag.

Investigators said this gave them two paths to pursue.

An international group of detectives converged on a clothing shop named Mary's House in Sliema, Malta, an island midway between Libya and Europe. The owner said he thought he recalled a tall Arab, about 50 years old, buying the T-shirt and several other items in the fall of 1988. Many Libyans visited the shop, the owner said, and the mystery customer might have been Libyan.

At the same time, investigators went to Mebo, Bollier's electronics company in Zurich, with photos of the circuit board fragments. The U.S. government said Bollier told the detectives that the photos showed a piece from an MST-13 timer unit, and that he had made the MST-13 circuits for the Libyan government.

The signposts were now pointing toward Libya and the terrorist operations overseen by Gadhafi, a man who had sworn vengeance after the United States bombed Tripoli in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed an American serviceman, and Washington accused Gadhafi of having ordered. The CIA sought help from a Libyan intelligence agent who had recently defected.

The agent identified two men who almost perfectly fit the profile investigators had pieced together: two alleged Libyan terrorists whose cover jobs had been working for Libyan Arab Airlines at Malta's airport. He even led the investigators to what were said to be pages from a diary belonging to one of the men. The notes included a reminder to obtain some Air Malta luggage tags.

In November 1991, the acting U.S. attorney general, William Barr, personally announced the indictment of two Libyans, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. At that point, the lengthy criminal investigation gave way to an even longer political negotiation.

Only last year did Gadhafi, the United States and Britain agree on terms of a trial for the two suspects. They will be tried by Scottish judges under Scottish criminal law, but in a courtroom in the Netherlands--at Camp Zeist, a former U.S. military base near Utrecht that has been declared Scottish jurisdiction for the duration of the trial.

Libya is paying for the defense team, led by a prominent Scottish criminal lawyer, William Taylor. The defense is expected to focus on witness recantations and other gaps in the prosecution's case. Further, defense attorneys said last week they will seek to blame the Lockerbie bomb on Palestinian terrorists--on the same Syrian splinter group, in fact, that was the U.S. government's chief suspect in the case until the Libyan connection came along.

When proceedings begin Wednesday, most seats will be taken by families of the Flight 103 victims, mainly from the United States and Britain. It will be a moment most of them hardly dared to hope for. But many are ambivalent as the long-delayed trial begins.

"One of the questions is, what deal did they make to get Gadhafi to agree to a trial?" said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the blast. "Two junior operators go to jail, maybe, and Libya gets a warm welcome as a respectable nation? If the arrangement is that they get these two guys, and ignore the people who planned the terrorism and directed the terrorism, what do you gain from that?"

TRAIL OF EVIDENCE

A day after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, hundreds of investigators began combing the area for pieces of evidence. The items discovered led them to conclude that a bomb had ripped apart the airliner. The investigation turned into the largest terrorist probe in history, spanning more than 40 countries. After years of work, the detectives traced the bomb plot to Libya and two Libyan intelligence agents, who were indicted in 1991. They go on trial this week.

* Evidence found:

Among the thousands of pieces of debris collected near Lockerbie was a fragment of a circuit board from a Toshiba radio-cassette player with traces of plastic explosives. A small piece from a Swiss-made digital timer apparently had been inside the radio.

How it fits into the puzzle:

Togo: CIA analysts found that the timing device fragment was similar to one used in a 1986 attempt to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Togo. That attempt was linked to Libyan intelligence.

* Evidence found:

Labels and shreds from a shirt that apparently had been wrapped around the bomb-laden radio.

How it fits into the puzzle:

Malta: Investigators traced the shirt and labels to a store where one of the suspects had purchased clothing on Dec. 7, 1988. The Libyan had stayed in a Holiday Inn 300 yards from the store.

* Evidence found:

Shards of a brown Samsonite suitcase whose owner could not be traced. The suitcase had been aboard Flight 103 unaccompanied.

How it fits into the puzzle:

Frankfurt: By analyzing pieces of debris, detectives found that the Samsonite suitcase, which apparently carried the Toshiba radio containing the bomb, was loaded into a specific cargo container put aboard the Pan Am flight. A notebook belonging to one suspect contained remarks on how to steal luggage tags in Malta to route the suitcase from Malta to Frankfurt and onto the Pan Am flight.

* Evidence found:

Investigators determined that the blast occurred in the forward cargo hold.

How it fits into the puzzle:

London: The container with the Samsonite suitcase was moved to the front of the Boeing 747's cargo hold.

* Evidence found:

Pieces of evidence found at Lockerbie contained traces of the plastic explosive Semtex.

How it fits into the puzzle:

Senegal: Plastic explosives seized in Senegal in 1984 matched the characteristics of the material found in the Lockerbie wreckage. Two men arrested there also had a triggering device similar to the one found in Scotland. Forensic experts linked the Togo and Senegal operations to Libyan intelligence agents.

* Evidence found:

Diary containing names and notes by Libyan agent Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and the name of fellow agent Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi surfaced. How investigators obtained the diary has not been revealed.

How it fits into the puzzle:

Libya: Fhimah and Megrahi were back home at the time of their 1991 indictment. It took U.S. sanctions and years of negotiations before Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed to deliver the two suspects for trial in the Netherlands.

* Col. Moammar Gadhafi: He has ruled Libya since 1969.

* Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi:

Born: 1952 in Tripoli, Libya.

He was with Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta at the time of the bombing.

* Lamen Khalifa Fhimah

Born: 1956 in Suk Giuma, Libya.

He was station manager of Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta at the time of the bombing.

SOURCES: Press and staff reports

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