Lockerbie case `flawed'

Doubts emerge over evidence against Libyan suspects. John Arlidge repor ts
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The case against the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing is seriously flawed, new evidence suggests. Leaked prosecution documents indicate that the indictments against the men contain a significant error and that vital eye-witness evidence is weak and confused. The release of the documents has led to renewed speculation that Iran and Syria, rather than Libya, ordered and carried out the terrorist attack which destroyed Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988, killing 270 people.

The new evidence, contained in a BBC Radio File on Four documentary to be broadcast tonight, centres on the role of one of the suspects, Abdel Bassett Ali Al-Megrahi. In 1991, he and another alleged Libyan security agent, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were jointly accused of carrying out the bombing. The pair have consistently denied involvement.

Mr Megrahi was charged after he was identified as the man who bought the clothes which were packed into the suitcase that contained the airline bomb. The scorched remains of the clothes, which were found at the crash site in Scotland, were traced to a shop in Malta, where, investigators say, the bomb began its journey.

Mr Megrahi was identified by the Maltese shop-owner, Tony Gauci. His evidence is vital to the prosecution case against the two Libyans because, legal sources say, it provides the only direct, eye-witness link between the pair and the suitcase. But the leaked documents, which contain details of police interviews with Mr Gauci, reveal that his evidence is flawed. His identification of Mr Megrahi is unreliable and his statements indicate that the Libyan could not have bought the clothes on the date specified in the charges.

In the interviews, conducted by British detectives, Mr Gauci repeatedly describes the man who bought the clothes as 6ft tall and around 50 years old. Mr Megrahi is 5ft 8in tall and was 36 in 1988. Moreover, on several occasions Mr Gauci names another man, Mohammed Abu Talb, a known Palestinian terrorist sympathiser, as the buyer.

Mr Gauci also provides strong evidence that it was raining on the afternoon when the clothes were bought. The US and UK indictments specify that Mr Megrahi visited the shop on 7 December 1988, two weeks before the bombing. Official meteorological recordsin Malta show that it did not rain that day.

Legal sources said yesterday that the leaked documents seriously weakened the case against the Libyans. One solicitor close to the Lockerbie investigation said: "Gauci's description of Al-Megrahi is totally unconvincing. But he is quite firm when it comes to the weather, which indicates that the date mentioned in the indictments is wrong. His evidence is so weak that the prosecution in any trial would have great difficulty in proving that it was Al-Megrahi who bought the clothes. A junior defence lawyercould demolish the case against him.

"Since the evidence from the shop forms the basis of the case against Al-Megrahi, it seems certain that he would be acquitted. If that happened, the case against Fhimah would most likely collapse because the pair appear jointly on conspiracy charges. In the absence of any other strong eye-witness evidence - and there is no suggestion that the authorities have any - the trial could be over within days."

Relatives of the Lockerbie victims insisted yesterday that the latest disclosures reinforced the need for an early trial in Britain, America or a neutral country of the two Libyans, who have so far refused to surrender to prosecuting authorities.

Dr Jim Swire, spokesman for the UK relatives, said: "Any suggestion that the case against Libya may have holes in it makes it even more important that these guys face a jury as soon as possible, so that if it turns out that they did not in fact carry outthe atrocity, we can then try to find out whether other key suspects, like Iran and Syria, did."

The Crown Office in Edinburgh insisted yesterday that the prosecution case against Mr Megrahi and Mr Fhimah remained "as strong as ever".