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Man held in airliner bombing might appeal

A Libyan intelligence agent will learn this week if he can appeal against his conviction for blowing a Pan Am airliner out of the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988.
/ Source: Reuters

A Libyan intelligence agent will learn this week if he can appeal against his conviction for blowing a Pan Am airliner out of the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988.

An eight-member independent review commission will announce on Thursday whether it will refer the case of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to the Scottish High Court as a possible miscarriage of justice.

If Megrahi were to appeal and win, it would throw wide open the question of who ordered and carried out the bombing of Pan Am 103, which killed 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

Victims' relatives, legal sources and diplomatic analysts said such an outcome could also prompt compensation demands from Libya, which has paid more than $2 billion to victims' families on the premise that Megrahi was guilty.

"They would seem to have every right to claw their money back," said Briton Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was aboard the doomed flight.

"They would seem to have the right, and Megrahi would seem to have the right, to extensive damages for what has been done to him."

Megrahi was convicted in 2001 by Scottish judges sitting in a special court in the Netherlands and jailed for life. He has been serving his sentence in Scotland.

The judges decided that the evidence showed Megrahi placed the bomb aboard a plane in Malta and it was transferred onto a Pan Am 'feeder' flight at Frankfurt before ending up on Flight 103 from London Heathrow to New York.

Contradictory evidence
Critics say that version is full of holes. Among other points, they question the reliability of the witness who identified Megrahi, the forensic evidence about the bomb and its timer, and whether it was really loaded in Malta or at Heathrow.

"The evidence did not support the conviction. He was convicted only because the judges blithely ignored contradictory evidence," said Robert Black, professor emeritus of Scottish law at the University of Edinburgh.

At Megrahi's trial, the defense tried unsuccessfully to pin the blame on the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC). Some close to the case still believe it carried out the bombing, backed by Iran out of revenge for the U.S. downing of an Iranian airliner in the Gulf just five months before Lockerbie.

Swire, who speaks on behalf of some victims' families, says the United States was keen not to blame Iran and Syria because it needed their support, first to gain the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and later as it built a coalition to fight the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991.

"Therefore they needed to switch the blame away from Syria and Iran, who up until then had been the main suspects," he said in a telephone interview. "They picked on Libya ... I think that Megrahi and his ilk are a convenient fall guy for the people who really did it."

Libya could stand to gain
The government of Moammar Gadhafi accepted responsibility for Lockerbie in a letter to the United Nations in 2003, marking the start of its international rehabilitation after years of being shunned by the West as a pariah.

But the key sentence said Libya "accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials" — a carefully chosen wording that could absolve it if Megrahi's conviction were quashed.

"My guess is the first reaction will be from the Gadhafi regime to say: 'We told you so,'" said George Joffe, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at Cambridge University.

He said Libya might argue it had been sold a "false bill of goods" and forced into admitting responsibility and paying the families. "That raises the interesting question whether they can claim for compensation from the United States."

The case has added piquancy because of Libya's running dispute with the West over its jailing of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor for deliberately infecting 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus.

Tripoli, Joffe said, would portray any eventual Megrahi acquittal as a gross miscarriage of justice by a Western court. "There's lots of grounds for really big embarrassment."