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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Page 22

Special Report

The American Press on the Death of the "Lockerbie Bomber"

By Andrew I. Killgore

Friends and relatives pray over the body of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi during his funeral in the Tripoli suburb of Janzur, Libya, May 21, 2012. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/GettyImages)

The Washington Post, New York Times and the U.S. edition of the Financial Times all carried articles on the May 20 death in Tripoli, Libya of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of bombing Pan American Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988.

The Post, whose pro-Israel sympathies cause its Middle East coverage to be unreliable at best, had a straight one-column article. It expressed no doubts that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 was transported from Valletta, Malta to Frankfurt, Germany to London, where it was loaded onto the doomed plane.

Determined to publish as little as possible on the Lockerbie tragedy, the news of Megrahi's death was published in the Post's little-read obituary section—alongside the death of singer Robin Gibb of the disco group the Bee Gees. In a stunning example of the paper's priorities, the Post devoted nearly twice as much space to Gibb's obituary as it did to Megrahi's.

The Financial Times article is better, and much less linear. "Discrepancies at the trial led many to believe in Megrahi's innocence," it informs its readers. The former Scottish lord advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmillie, in expressing his doubts about Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci's identification of Megrahi as having bought certain clothes from his shop in Valletta, remarked that Gauci was "an apple short of a picnic." The Financial Times also notes that "there were reports that Gauci received at least $2 million from the U.S., possibly via the CIA."

As a result, the paper concludes, "we may never know who placed the bomb that brought down terror and death to a planeload of passengers, to the crew that served them, and civilians in a sleepy Scottish town [Lockerbie] below."

The New York Times carried two articles on Megrahi's death, one by John F. Burns and the other by Robert D. McFadden. Neither is bad, given the American media's strange silence on the Lockerbie issue. Burns writes, "Even Megrahi's death may not end the saga of Flight 103."

Dr. Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the Pan Am 103 crash, is mentioned by name, but Dr. Robert Black is not. It was Black, professor emeritus of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, who originated the idea of holding the Lockerbie trial in The Netherlands with Scottish judges under Scottish law. Nor is any mention made of the Justice for Megrahi Committee (of which this writer is a member).

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, noted in a television interview that the Scottish police investigation of the bombing had never been closed, and that Libya's new government had "promised to cooperate" in an effort to settle who was responsible.

Dr. Swire, whom Burns describes as "the most persistent—and most controversial—of Megrahi's defenders in Britain," fainted in court when Megrahi was convicted and his indicted co-defendant Lamen Khalifa Fhimah acquitted. Swire is a vigorous advocate of an independent inquiry into the bombing, Burns writes, and was reported to have said in broadcast interviews on May 20 that there were two false pieces of evidence in Megrahi's conviction. According to Swire, shopowner Gauci had been paid "millions of dollars" by Western intelligence agencies. Also, the bomb's circuit board was one used by Iranian—not Libyan—intelligence.

McFadden provides much evidence on doubts about Megrahi's guilt. The Lockerbie court "found the case circumstantial, the evidence incomplete and some witnesses unreliable," he writes, but nevertheless left "no reasonable doubt" on Megrahi's guilt. He quotes Hans Kochler, a United Nations observer at the trial, as calling it "a spectacular miscarriage of justice." McFadden continues: "Many legal experts and investigative journalists challenged the evidence, calling Megrahi a scapegoat for a Libyan government long identified with terrorism." While denying involvement, he writes, Libya paid $2.7 million to the victims' families in 2003 in a bid to end years of diplomatic isolation.

Andrew I. Killgore, a retired foreign service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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