The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie (Scotland) on December 21, 1988, was an appalling tragedy. All 259 people on board were killed, as were 11 people on the ground when aircraft-fragments fell on houses. It is natural that the victims’ families should demand that those responsible be brought to justice. Yet after the conviction earlier this month of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi by a special Scottish court in Holland, many recognise that justice has not necessarily been done.
Few disputed the opinion of one defence lawyer that the case consisted entirely of “inference upon an inference upon an inference — leading to an inference”.
Robert Black, professor of law at Edinburgh University, and author of the special legal arrangement by which the two Libyan defendants were tried, expressed disquiet over the verdict, saying that the evidence presented – entirely circumstantial – was clearly insufficient to establish al-Megrahi’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”. He suggested that the Scottish verdict of “not proven” would have been more appropriate if the three judges hearing the case were unwilling to clear him. Other expert observers agreed with Black’s analysis. Few disputed the opinion of one defence lawyer that the case consisted entirely of “inference upon an inference upon an inference — leading to an inference”. So thin was the prosecution’s case that the defence lawyers declined to present a defence, arguing that there was no case for them to answer. Al-Megrahi has appealed against the verdict and may yet be cleared.
More disturbing still was the process by which the two men were brought to court and the evidence against them gathered. The Libyan government agreed to surrender them for trial only after being subjected to economic sanctions for six years; Libya has no extradition treaty with either the US or Britain and was therefore under no obligation to surrender the men. Had there been a treaty, the normal procedure would have been for a Libyan court to assess the evidence and decide whether there was a case to answer. This procedure, designed to protect suspects’ rights, was ignored because the US and Britain were determined to use their superior strength to impose co-operation on Tripoli.
The way the evidence was gathered also raises questions. Virtually all was forensic or intelligence evidence provided by US agents. Normal legal standards for the gathering and assessment of evidence — as laid down in Britain’s Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), for example — are unlikely to have been followed, especially in view of the US government’s determination to see the Libyans convicted. When Libya handed the men over in 1999, Crescent International highlighted the weakness of the case against them, saying “the likelihood must be that, over the next few months, the prosecution will find enough new forensic or intelligence evidence for the two Libyans to be locked up for a very long time” (Crescent International, April 16-30, 1999). That is, broadly speaking, what happened: when the weakness of the case became apparent, the CIA provided more evidence to bolster the prosecution.
The West, supposedly a champion of democracy, the rule of law and the rights of individuals, often accuses its enemies of abusing legal processes for political ends. Its Cold War enemies (the Soviet Union and China) were accused of conducting ‘show trials’, and Islamic Iran has recently been attacked over the trials of 10 Iranian Jews convicted recently of spying for Israel. It is easy to see that the West is as guilty as the Soviet Union and China ever were, and far more than Islamic Iran. In numerous cases involving Muslims – that of Shaikh Omar Abdul-Rahman is the obvious example – US authorities have ridden rough-shod over legal procedures to secure convictions. Imam Jamil al-Amin is now facing the same fate. Other Western countries are equally guilty: in France, for example, hundreds of Algerian activists have been wrongly convicted of ‘terrorist’ activities.
Justice, to be reliably enforced, needs to be administered by honest and scrupulous authorities. Neither Western governments, nor Western-dominated international bodies, meet this standard. Ultimately, the relatives of the Lockerbie victims will probably have to accept that genuine justice will never be done, as the relatives of those killed in the Iran Air flight shot down by the USS Vincennes in July 1988 (and of countless other Western crimes) have already had to accept. As Muslims, we at least know that justice will be done in the next world, if not this one.