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Listen to Mandela: the Lockerbie bombing (Read 1324 times)
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Listen to Mandela: the Lockerbie bombing
Jun 26th, 2002 at 3:21am
Paul Foot, June 26, 2002, Guardian

Why did Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, take so much time and trouble to visit Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in Barlinnie prison, Glasgow? Why would he announce after the visit that he was impressed with Mr Megrahi and unimpressed by his solitary confinement? Why did he go on to argue that Mr Megrahi deserves further hearings at the European court of human rights?
After all, Mr Megrahi stands convicted by a Scottish court of the biggest mass murder in British history. According to three Scottish judges at his trial, and another five on appeal, he planted a bomb in a suitcase on a plane in Malta which ended up exploding on a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people. Hundreds of friends and relatives are still grieving over their loss.

Nelson Mandela is a compassionate man. So why should he compound all that grief by visiting the mass murderer in his cell, and pleading on his behalf for better conditions and yet another appeal? The only conceivable answer is that Mr Mandela believes that Mr Megrahi did not put the bomb on the plane, that he is innocent of the Lockerbie bombing and that the Scottish judges who convicted him made a terrible mistake.

Such a shocking conclusion can be justified quite quickly. The case against Mr Megrahi rested on the theory that the Lockerbie bomb was placed on a flight from Malta - a theory for which, as the judges noticed, there was not a vestige of proof. On the contrary. The evidence was that all the suitcases on the Maltese flight were accounted for when it got to Frankfurt.

The only evidence connecting Megrahi to the bomb suitcase was his identification by a Maltese shopkeeper as the man who bought clothes that ended up in the same suitcase as the bomb. This identification was not made until 11 years after the event. The shopkeeper had originally described a man much bigger and older than Megrahi. And there was also substantial evidence to suggest that Mr Megrahi was not even in Malta on the day the clothes were bought.

The case against Megrahi was also tainted by the fact that his co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah, originally charged with conspiracy to murder, was acquitted after a "star" witness provided by the CIA turned out to be a fantasist and a liar, solely motivated by a desire to live the rest of his life at the expense of the American taxpayer.

With the honourable exception of the redoubtable Labour MP for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, the Scottish people have been slow to respond to this monstrous injustice in their midst. Perhaps more of them will be alerted to it by the bold initiative of Mr Mandela, who knows a thing or two about long prison sentences after wrongful imprisonment.

Here is a fundamental recommendation for the Home Office's "fundamental review" on coroners that reaches its consultation stage next month. Abolish the coroner. It is surely the end of the line for these jumped-up bureaucrats with lots of power and not much sense of their democratic responsibilities.

The case for abolishing coroners has been made even stronger by the shocking case of Harry Stanley. Harry was shot dead from behind by police officers as he walked home from a pub carrying a repaired table leg in a carrier bag. The coroner at the inquest last week was Dr Stephen Chan, who was for 10 years a forensic medical examiner for the Metropolitan police. The case was a grotesque illustration of the coroner's omnipotence: the coroner decides who gives evidence, he decides what investigations will be carried out, he leads the questioning of the witnesses and he tells the jury what verdicts they can bring in.

Dr Chan turned down an application for an independent forensic expert to give evidence about the Stanley shooting. He ruled out a verdict of unlawful killing, leaving the jury with a choice between "lawful killing" and an open verdict. Their unanimous open verdict was a slap in the face for the police - and for the coroner.

When a senior police officer blurted out that Harry Stanley had criminal convictions, Dr Chan ordered them to be read out. Tim Owen, QC for the Stanley family, pointed out that the police sharpshooters had said they had no idea who they were shooting, and that any previous convictions were irrelevant. Dr Chan told the barrister to sit down, observing: "Your objection is noted." Also noted, replied Mr Owen, "is your inability to give a ruling."

Irene Stanley, Harry's widow, has been waiting for an inquest for three years. She left the court utterly disgusted with the coroner. "I came here for justice," she said, "but didn't get a sniff of it from him."

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