A commentary on the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the murder of 270 people in the Pan Am 103 disaster.
TUESDAY, 27 JANUARY 2015
“Scottish justice … subject to cynical manipulation”
[What follows is the text of an article published in The Mail on Sunday on this date in 2002:]
The key witness whose evidence helped convict the Lockerbie bomber has enjoyed holiday trips to Scotland and lavish hospitality organised by police officers, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Legal experts believe the revelation could have significant bearing on the case of Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, whose appeal against conviction for the murder of 270 people in Britain’s worst terrorist atrocity began last week.
Secret tape recordings, obtained by The Mail on Sunday, reveal witness Tony Gauci boasting about being taken from his home in Malta to Scotland by police for fishing, hillwalking and bird-watching trips.
Astonishingly, Gauci also claims he was taken to Lockerbie to be shown the damage caused by the bomb that ripped through PanAm Flight 103 in December 1988.
The tattered remains of clothes bought from Gauci’s shop were found in the suitcase that contained the bomb. The shopkeeper is the only person to have linked Megrahi directly to the Lockerbie bombing, telling investigators he “resembled a lot” the man who bought the clothes.
A Scottish undercover investigator travelled to Malta and secretly taped conversations with Gauci, owner of Mary’s House clothes shop in Sliema, and Det Constable Ian Goodall, a Strathclyde Police officer based in Malta.
Gauci claims he has been taken to Scotland by police on five or six occasions since the Lockerbie bombing.
In the early part of the investigation, Gauci claims he was taken to the small Scottish town to be shown the damage – a highly unusual move as the Scottish justice system frowns upon taking a witness to a crime scene before a trial.
Gauci also reveals that the hospitality of the Scottish police has been extended to four other members of his family. He talks of being taken into the mountains, visiting the Aviemore ski resort, going fly-fishing for salmon and bird-watching. While in Scotland he has on at least one occasion stayed at the luxury £150-a-night Hilton Hotel in Glasgow. A day ticket for a top salmon fishing river can cost up to £1000 a day.
Indeed, Gauci is believed to be in Scotland at the moment. A trip was being prepared for him when the investigator, a former detective, left Malta two weeks ago. It is believed that Gauci might have travelled in the last week under an assumed name.
In a conversation with George Thomson, a leading criminal investigator working undercover, Gauci said he had been an important witness in a terrorist trial and that the police had to look after him to keep the “bad man” in jail.
Asked by Thomson if detectives had indeed looked after him well, Gauci replied: “They have to. They want this man to stay in jail.”
In another conversation, Gauci volunteers information potentially crucial to Megrahi’s appeal that officers took him to Scotland on one occasion “to check the quality of my statement and make sure I am saying the same things.”
There are already question marks over the evidence given by Gauci during Megrahi’s trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, which ended in January last year.
On the second day of Megrahi’s appeal in front of five Scottish judges, William Taylor QC, who leads Megrahi’s defence, said the trial judges had drawn the wrong conclusions from evidence riddled with “contradictions and inconsistencies.”
Mr Taylor said Gauci’s evidence was “palpably unreliable” both in its identification of Megrahi and on the question of the date when the Libyan is alleged to have bought clothes in his shop.
Also, the shopkeeper made some 20 statements over ten or 11 years before giving evidence. Most have been leaked to journalists and researchers over the years. They show substantial variations, underlining the difficulty of achieving perfect recall over a long period of time. This suggests his recollection of the crucial events he was involved in might not have been as precise as he indicated to the court.
Robert Black, Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University, said the matter of Gauci’s trips had to be fully investigated during the course of Megrahi’s appeal.
Prof Black added: “As far as I am aware, this is not normal practice. I do not know of any other witness in a Scottish murder trial to have been taken on holidays and fishing trips by the police.”
He said that if a witness in a trial had been offered “treats” by one side, the other side ought to have the opportunity to cross-examine him to establish whether he might have been motivated to “improve” his evidence in favour of those giving the “treats”.
He added: “If it transpires that Gauci was being treated in this way before or during the trial, or indeed understood that he would be given trips after the trial, it would require his credibility as a witness to be re-examined and could alter the outcome of the case.
“Senior police officers and prosecutors worked very closely on this case. If the prosecution was aware of the arrangement, it ought to have alerted the defence.”
One of Britain’s most senior retired judges said he regarded the matter as “wholly improper”.
The judge, who refused to be named because he feared it would seem “impudent” to criticise the conduct of a Scottish trial, said: “If I learned that a crown witness had been treated and spoiled by the police or prosecution, I would be very concerned that it might have interfered with the course of justice.
“The defence would be entitled to know and to question the credibility of the witness. If such a matter emerged after a guilty verdict, it would be a valid point of appeal. Whether it succeeded would be determined by the weight of other evidence.” [RB: The retired judge in question is still alive.]
Tam Dalyell, the most dogged campaigner on Lockerbie in the House of Commons, expressed shock and dismay last night. He said: “If your information is correct, it is very significant. I believe it’s vital to establish who knew about these trips. Did the trial judges know? Did the lord advocates who were in office during the years of the investigation know? If they did, those who have gone on to become judges should be removed from the bench.”
Dalyell said he would be raising the matter with the appropriate authorities and would seek to establish who was paying for the trips. He added: “This raises the most fundamental questions imaginable about Scottish justice apparently being subject to cynical manipulation.”
British relatives of those who died felt it would be inappropriate to comment because the appeal was underway. But one said: “You can take it we are horrified by this.”
A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police said: “We never comment on matters relating to witness protection.”
Det Ch Supt Tom MuCulloch, head of CID at Dumfries and Galloway police and nominally the senior investigating officer in the case, said through a spokesman: “We do not make any comment in matters relating to witnesses in the Lockerbie investigation.”
Gauci’s contribution to the trial was absolutely central to the conviction of Megrahi a year ago. His co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, walked free while Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum recommendation of 20 years.
The key difference in the case against the two men was that in Fhimah’s case, no credible witness existed to give the court a first-hand account of incriminating conduct.
Gauci was able to tell the court that Megrahi “resembled a lot” the man who bought the clothes from his shop weeks before the bombing.
His original description to investigators was of a man much taller and at least ten years older than Megrahi, but when shown photographs of the Libyan agent, he always said there was a resemblance.
However, he also identified other suspects, including the convicted bomber Mohammed Abu Talb, serving life in Sweden for terrorist bombings, as resembling the man.
Despite acknowledging that Gauci’s identification was not absolute, the three Scottish judges who found Megrahi guilty of murder attached much weight to it and clearly were impressed by his evidence.
Taylor has already set out his grounds for appeal to the five-judge bench that will decide his client’s ultimate fate. Already, it is clear that the appeal hinges largely on Gauci’s evidence.
As well as arguing that the judges were not entitled to conclude from his testimony that Megrahi bought the clothes, they will also argue that they were wrong to conclude the clothes were purchased on December 7.
The trial heard evidence that the likely date of purchase was in fact November 23, when Megrahi was in Libya, but opted instead for December 7, when he was in Malta where he worked for Libyan Arab Airlines.
This conclusion was reached despite evidence that it was raining when the buyer left the shop and testimony from Malta’s met office that it did not rain on December 7.
Thomson learned that Gauci already enjoys protection from armed Maltese officers. Witness protection officers in the UK are normally assigned only to someone whose life is considered to be in danger as a result of their testimony in a trial. In such cases, the witness is moved and given a new identity.
Gauci continues to live on Malta and to run Mary’s House with his brother, Paul, a situation that hardly suggests his life is in danger. He is known to locals as Tony Lockerbie.
- About us …27 January, 2015Reply
- The truth about the Scottish trip would eventually emerge in 2009 when the SCCRC discovered the contents of DCI Harry Bell’s diary. According to Bell the first visit took place in the spring of 1991 shortly after Gauci’s first identification of Al-Megrahi from photographs (15th February 1991). When discussing the arrangements, DCI Harry Bell wrote in his diary: “Scicluna spoke to Gauci today. He is not keen on going to [redacted location]… However, he would consider … [redacted alternative location] but would like his father with him even though they may argue. He wondered how he would explain the cost of such a trip. He was told to suggest the National Lotto as having won a prize.” This information was deliberately concealed from the judges and the defence by Bell and the entire prosecution team.
- Rolfe27 January, 2015Reply
- Even if you ignore the question of which day it happened, the very idea that Tony Gauci was capable of identifying the man who bought the clothes as Megrahi (or indeed anyone else) is ludicrous. Add the matter of the rain and the Christmas lights, and it’s fantasy land.