THE appeal against Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s conviction for the Lockerbie bomb was in court on Friday.

Megrahi’s family have asked for the posthumous appeal following his death in 2012. The family’s lawyers asked the court to see protected UK Government documents on the case.

Aamer Anwar, the family’s lawyer, said afterwards that judges will give their decision on the documents and on the grounds of appeal later. A full appeal hearing has been provisionally set for November 23.

Here Nan Spowart looks at the events leading up to the family’s appeal.


Four days before Christmas, in 1988, tragedy hit the small town of Lockerbie in the shape of the deadliest terrorist attack the UK has ever known.

As the residents prepared for a peaceful festive celebration, 31,000ft above them Pan Am Flight 103 exploded, killing all 259 passengers and crew on board. The fuselage plunged to the ground, wiping out three homes completely while others burst into flames. Eleven residents died. A group of US intelligence specialists including Matthew Gannon, the CIA’s deputy station chief in Beirut and 35 students from Syracuse University were among the victims on board. Also killed were musician Paul Jeffreys and Irish Olympic sailor Peter Dix.

The flight was en route from Heathrow to New York and the majority of passengers and crew were American citizens.

It was a regular transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York, with a scheduled change of aircraft at Heathrow. Around an hour after takeoff from London, radio contact was established with air traffic control at Prestwick at 18.58 but this was lost shortly after as a bomb in the hold exploded – blowing off the nose of the aircraft which then plummeted to earth causing a seismic event of 1.6 to be registered by the British Geological Survey at 19.03.36 at Eskdalemuir, 14 miles away.

Crew members and several first-class passengers were found dead but still strapped to their seats in the nose section and a flight attendant was found alive but died shortly after. A pathologist’s report later said that some passengers may have remained alive after impact and at least two could have survived had they been found in time.

A wing section hit Sherwood Crescent at more than 500mph, making a crater 147ft long. Some bodies were never found. The only home on the street not gutted by fire or destroyed by the impact was that of the priest, Father Patrick Keegans.

When distraught relatives of the passengers and crew arrived to identify bodies after the crash, volunteers from the town set up a 24-hour canteen offering free food and drink to them and all the police, social workers and soldiers dealing with the aftermath. The townspeople also washed, ironed and returned to relatives every single recovered piece of clothing not needed for the investigation.

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Two alerts were sent out shortly before the bombing. On December 5, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent out a security notice to all US carriers, including Pan Am, stating that a man with an Arabic accent had just called the US Embassy in Finland to say that a Pan Am flight to the US from Frankfurt would be targeted in the next fortnight by an associate of the Abu Nidal Organisation. The warning was found by Pan Am’s Frankfurt security team under a pile of papers the day after the attack.

Shortly before the bombing, security forces in the UK and across Europe were warned that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had said extremists might carry out terrorist attacks to undermine talks taking place between the PLO and the US.

Afterwards, several groups claimed responsibility, including Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, who said it was in retaliation to US forces shooting down an Iranian plane in the Persian Gulf the previous July. This was considered by the CIA to be the most credible claim at the time.

Years later it was revealed that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, a Syrian-based group, were prime suspects. US officials confirmed the group had been monitoring Pan Am’s Frankfurt facilities. One of the group had also been arrested in Frankfurt five weeks before the attack, along with a known bomb-maker, and an undercover CIA operative was told by high ranking Syrian officials that the group was involved. An Iranian former spy claimed in 2014 that Iran had ordered the attack, a claim denied by the Iranian Government.


It was described as the UK’s largest criminal investigation led by the smallest police force in Britain – Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary – and took three years. Aided by the FBI, 15,000 witness statements were taken as well as helicopter surveys, satellite imagery and a full search of the 2000 sq km crash site by police and soldiers, who collected 10,000 bits of debris which were entered into a computer tracking system.

Parts of a Samsonite suitcase were found which was believed to have carried the bomb, as well as pieces of circuit board identified as parts of a radio-cassette player similar to the one used to hide a Semtex bomb seized two months earlier by West German police from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.

Baby clothes, later found to have been made in Malta, were thought to have been in the suitcase. These were traced to Tony Gauci, a Maltese merchant, who said they had been bought by a man of Libyan appearance.

Gauci became a key prosecution witness in the ensuing trial even though, during 23 interviews, he gave contradictory evidence about the man’s appearance and age and the date the clothes were bought.

He identified Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan who had been in Malta on December 7. Gauci said the Christmas lights had not yet been switched on at the time he sold the clothes to al-Megrahi. However, the lights were switched on the day before.

Indictments for murder against al-Megrahi, head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) and a Libyan intelligence officer, were issued on November 13, 1991, as well as Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, LAA station manager in Malta airport.

Negotiations with Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and sanctions imposed by the US on Libya finally saw the handover of the pair to Scottish police in April 1999 at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands which was chosen as a neutral place for the trial.

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Both accused pled not guilty but while Fhimah was acquitted, al-Megrahi was found guilty on January 31, 2001, of 270 counts of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment in Scotland.

The judgment stated: “From the evidence which we have discussed so far, we are satisfied that it has been proved that the primary suitcase containing the explosive device was dispatched from Malta, passed through Frankfurt and was loaded onto PA103 at Heathrow.

“It is, as we have said, clear that, with one exception the clothing in the primary suitcase was the clothing purchased in Mr Gauci’s shop on December 7, 1988.

“The trigger for the explosion was an MST-13 timer of the single solder mask variety. A substantial quantity of such timers had been supplied to Libya. We cannot say that it is impossible that the clothing might have been taken from Malta, united somewhere with a timer from some source other than Libya and introduced into the airline baggage system at Frankfurt or Heathrow.

“When, however, the evidence regarding the clothing, the purchaser and the timer is taken with the evidence that an unaccompanied bag was taken from KM180 to PA103A, the inference that that was the primary suitcase becomes, in our view, irresistible.

“As we have also said, the absence of an explanation as to how the suitcase was taken into the system at Luqa (Malta) is a major difficulty for the Crown case, but after taking full account of that difficulty, we remain of the view that the primary suitcase began its journey at Luqa. The clear inference which we draw from this evidence is that the conception, planning and execution of the plot which led to the planting of the explosive device was of Libyan origin. While no doubt organisations such as the PFLP-GC and the PPSF were also engaged in terrorist activities during the same period, we are satisfied that there was no evidence from which we could infer that they were involved in this particular act of terrorism, and the evidence relating to their activities does not create a reasonable doubt in our minds about the Libyan origin of this crime.”


An appeal was lodged by al-Megrahi which was refused in March 2002, as was his application to the European Court of Human Rights.

It later emerged that a report which was not made available to his defence in the trial said that four days before identifying al-Megrahi, Gauci had seen a magazine picture of him which connected him with the atrocity. The defence was also not informed that another witness said they had seen Libyan men making a similar purchase of baby clothes on a different day to al-Megrahi. In addition, part of the circuit board fragment was allegedly traced through Mebo, its Swiss manufacturer, to the Libyan military. During the trial Mebo’s owner, Edwin Bollier was asked to identify a green 9-ply circuit board that was supplied to Libya but the sample the Scottish police had previously shown him was part of a brown 8-ply circuit board from a timer never supplied to Libya. Bollier later claimed he had been offered $4 million by the FBI in return for supporting their main line of inquiry.

In September 2003, al-Megrahi applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) for a review of his conviction and in 2007, the SCCRC said the case should be referred to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh over a possible miscarriage of justice.

A year later it was revealed the 56-year-old had advanced prostate cancer. He agreed to drop his second appeal in return for his release home to Libya on compassionate grounds.

His release in August 2009 generated much controversy and criticism of the Scottish Government, particularly from the US. He died on May 20, 2012, aged 60, several months after the overthrow of Gaddafi during an uprising.

In July 2015, Scottish judges ruled that an appeal could not be pursued on his behalf by relatives of the bombing victims on the grounds that only next of kin could put forward a posthumous application. On July 4, 2017, his family launched a new bid and in March this year, the SCCRC ruled there could be a new appeal, referring the case to the High Court of Justiciary. The commission said it had looked at six grounds of review and decided that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred through “non-disclosure” or “unreasonable verdict”.