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Megrahi - Background to his Conviction and Sentence

Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103

An application has been lodged with the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) seeking to overturn the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for murder. (see What happens Next for an outline of the next steps )

Mr Megrahi was convicted on the 31st January 2001 of the charge of murder following trial at the High Court of Justiciary sitting at Kamp van Zeist in the Netherlands. His co-accused Al-amin Khalifa Fimah was acquitted following trial. Mr Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 27 years.


Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s first appeal was dismissed on the 14th March 2002.

The next appeal was mounted in consequence of the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission’s reference dated 28 June 2007.

Grounds of Appeal 1 and 2 were argued before the Court in full at a public hearing which took place between 28 April and 19 May 2009. On 7th July 2009 the Court indicated that one of its numbers, Lord Wheatley, had been hospitalised. It continued consideration of the grounds of appeal.

On 18th August 2009 Mr Megrahi with leave of the court, abandoned his appeal. No judgement or opinion has therefore been handed down by the Court upon these submissions.

Background to the Conviction

Pan Am flight 103 (“PA103”)

At 7.03pm on Wednesday 21 December 1988, shortly after taking off from Heathrow airport, PA103 was flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet en route to John F Kennedy airport, New York, when an explosion caused the aircraft to disintegrate and fall out of the sky. 243 passengers and 16 crew on board were killed. The victims came from 21 countries, the vast majority being from the United States.

The resulting debris was spread over a very wide area in Scotland and the North of England, but principally it landed in and around the town of Lockerbie causing the deaths of a further 11 people. In all 270 people were killed in the disaster.

A massive police operation was mounted to recover the bodies of the victims and as much of the debris as possible. The local police force, Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary (“D&G”), was assisted in the search operation by numerous officers from other forces in Scotland and England, as well as by military personnel and members of voluntary organisations.

Fatal Accident Inquiry

On 1 October 1990 a fatal accident inquiry was conducted by Sheriff Principal John Mowat QC. In his findings in fact, Sheriff Principal Mowat found that a Samsonite suitcase (“the primary suitcase”) containing a Toshiba radio cassette recorder loaded with a Semtex-type plastic explosive had been placed on board Pan Am flight 103A (“PA103A”) from Frankfurt to London Heathrow before being transferred to PA103; that the suitcase had probably arrived at Frankfurt on another airline and been transferred to PA103A without being identified as an unaccompanied bag; that the baggage had not been reconciled with passengers travelling on PA103, nor had it been x-rayed at Heathrow; and that the cause of all the deaths was the detonation of the explosive device in luggage container AVE 4041 which had been situated on the left side of the forward hold of the aircraft.

Sheriff Principal Mowat concluded that the primary cause of the deaths was a criminal act of murder.

The police investigation

It had been concluded very soon after the disaster that the likely cause had been the detonation of an improvised explosive device. From the date of the explosion and throughout the course of 1989-1991, an extensive international police investigation was carried out, principally involving the British and American investigating authorities, but also including the police forces of the former Federal Republic of Germany (“the BKA”) and of Malta.

Initially, suspicion fell upon Palestinian terrorist groups, in particular the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (“PFLP-GC”). However, in 1990 developments in the investigation turned its focus to Libya, and on 13 November 1991 a warrant was granted by a sheriff at Dumfries for the arrest of the applicant and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah (“the co-accused”), both Libyan nationals. On the following day the Lord Advocate issued an indictment setting out the charges against the two accused. Simultaneously, as a result of a federal grand jury investigation, the US Attorney General published an indictment in substantially similar terms to that issued by the Scottish authorities.

Following publication of the indictments, the UK and the US sought the handover of the two accused for trial, and throughout 1992 and 1993 the UN Security Council issued a number of resolutions calling upon Libya to do so. It also imposed extensive economic sanctions against that country. Libya denied any involvement in the crime.

Proposals for trial in the Netherlands

In 1998 the governments of the UK and the US wrote to the Secretary General of the UN indicating that they were prepared to arrange a trial of the two accused before a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. The trial, it was proposed, would follow Scots law and procedure in every respect except that the jury would be replaced by a panel of three judges. Following Libya’s consent to the initiative, an agreement was entered into between the UK and the Netherlands to put it into effect. On the same date, the High Court of Justiciary (Proceedings in the Netherlands) (United Nations) Order 1998 came into force in the UK, regulating such matters as the constitution of the trial and appeal courts.

Lords Sutherland, Coulsfield and MacLean were appointed to form the panel of judges. Lord Abernethy was appointed as an additional judge to assume the functions of any member of the panel who died during the proceedings or was absent for a prolonged period. He was not required to carry out that function. The location of the court was chosen as Kamp van Zeist in the Netherlands.

On 5 April 1999, the applicant and the co-accused travelled to the Netherlands where they were arrested by Scottish police officers. On 14 April 1999 they were fully committed for trial, and were detained at premises within the court precincts. The indictment was served upon them on 29 October 1999.

The trial

Preliminary pleas to the competency and relevancy of the charges were raised by both accused and argued on their behalf by counsel at a hearing on 7 December 1999. On 8 December, Lord Sutherland, sitting alone, held the charges to be both competent and relevant (see HMA v Al Megrahi (No 1) 2000 SCCR 177). Leave to appeal the decision was granted but no appeal was taken.

The trial commenced on 3 May 2000, and the cases for both accused closed on 8 January 2001. Neither the applicant nor the co-accused gave evidence. Following submissions by the parties on 18 January 2001 the diet was adjourned to allow the judges to deliberate upon their verdicts.

There were originally three alternative charges libelled on the indictment: (1) conspiracy to murder; (2) murder and (3) contravention of sections 2(1) and 5 of the Aviation Security Act 1982. However, on 10 January 2001, the advocate depute’s motion to delete charges (1) and (3), and to amend charge (2), was granted by the court. Consequently, by the end of the trial both accused faced only a single charge of murder in the following terms:

“(2) You ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI being a member of the Libyan Intelligence Services and in particular being the head of security of Libyan Arab Airlines and thereafter Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, Tripoli, Libya and you AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH being the Station Manager and formerly the Station Manager of Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta and having, while acting in concert with others, formed a criminal purpose to destroy a civil passenger aircraft and murder the occupants in furtherance of the purposes of the said Libyan Intelligence Services and having between 1 January 1985 and 21 December 1988, both dates inclusive, within the offices of Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa Airport, Malta and elsewhere in Malta in your possession and under your control quantities of high performance plastic explosive and airline luggage tags, while acting in concert together and with others [sub-paragraph (a) was deleted on the motion of the advocate depute]

(b) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH did between 20 November and 20 December 1988, both dates inclusive, at the premises occupied by the firm of MEBO AG at the Novapark Hotel, Zurich Switzerland, at the premises occupied by you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and by the said Libyan Intelligence Services, in Tripoli aforesaid, and elsewhere in Switzerland and Libya, through the hands of Ezzadin Hinshiri and Badri Hassan both also members of the Libyan Intelligence Services, order and attempt to obtain delivery from the said firm of MEBO AG of forty timers capable of detonating explosive devices and of a type previously supplied by the said firm of MEGO AG to member of the Libyan Intelligence Services;

(c) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH did between 1 and 21 December 1988, both dates inclusive, at Luqa Airport, Malta without authority remove therefrom airline luggage tags;

(d) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI did on 7 December 1988 in the shop premises known as Mary’s House at Tower Road, Sliema, Malta purchase a quantity of clothing and an umbrella;

(e) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH did on 20 December 1988 at Luqa Airport, Malta enter Malta while you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI were using a passport in the false name of Ahmed Khalifa Abdusamad and you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH did there and then cause a suitcase to be introduced to Malta;

(f) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI did on 20 and 21 December 1988 reside at the Holiday Inn Tigne Street, Sliema, aforesaid under the false identity of Ahmed Khalifa Abdusamad;

(g) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI and AL AMIN KHALIFA FHIMAH did on 21 December 1988 at Luqa Airport, aforesaid place or cause to be placed on board an aircraft of Air Malta flight KM180 to Frankfurt am Main Airport, Federal Republic of Germany said suitcase, or a similar suitcase, containing said clothing and umbrella and an improvised explosive device containing high performance plastic explosive concealed within a Toshiba RT SF 16 “Bombeat” radio cassette recorder and programmed to be detonated by one of said electronic timers, having tagged or caused such suitcase to be tagged so as to be carried by aircraft from Frankfurt am Main Airport aforesaid via London, Heathrow Airport to New York, John F Kennedy Airport, United States of America; and

(h) you ABDELBASET ALI MOHMED AL MEGRAHI did on 21 December 1988 depart from Malta and travel from there to Tripoli, Libya using a passport in the false name of Ahmed Khalifa Abdusamad, while travelling with said Mohammed Abouagela Masud also a member of the Libyan Intelligence Services; and such suitcase was thus carried to Frankfurt am Main Airport aforesaid and there placed on board an aircraft of Pan American World Airways flight PA103 and carried to London, Heathrow Airport aforesaid and there, in turn, placed on board an aircraft of Pan American World Airways flight PA103 to New York, John F Kennedy Airport aforesaid; and said improvised explosive device detonated and exploded on board said aircraft flight PA103 while in flight near to Lockerbie, Scotland whereby the aircraft was destroyed and the wreckage crashed to the ground and the 259 passengers and crew named in Schedule 1 hereof and the 11 residents of Lockerbie aforesaid named in Schedule 2 hereof were killed and you did murder them; and it will be shown that between 1 January 1985 and 21 December 1988, both dates inclusive, in Tripoli, Libya, at Dakar Airport, Senegal, in Malta and elsewhere the said Libyan Intelligence Services were in possession of said electronic timers, quantities of high performance plastic explosive, detonators and other components of improvised explosive devices and Toshiba RT SF 16 “Bombeat” radio cassette recorders, all for issue to and use by their members, including Mohammed El Marzouk and Mansour Omran Ammar Saber.”

The court returned its verdict on 31 January 2001. It unanimously found the co-accused not guilty. The verdict in relation to the applicant was recorded in the minutes of trial in the following terms (see also the transcript of proceedings on day 86 of the trial):

“The Court Unanimously found the Accused Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi GUILTY on the Second Alternative Charge but that under deletion of the words ‘and you Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifah [sic] Fhimah did there and then cause a suitcase to be introduced to Malta’ in lines 4 to 6 of subhead (e) of said charge and under deletion of the words ‘said suitcase, or’ in line 4 of subhead (g) and under deletion of the word ‘similar’ in line [4] of said subhead (g)”.

The court sentenced the applicant to life imprisonment, backdated to 5 April 1999, and recommended that he serve a minimum period of 20 years before he could be considered for release on licence.

Post-trial developments


The applicant lodged grounds of appeal against conviction on 11 June 2001 and leave to appeal was granted on 23 August 2001. The proceedings took place at Kamp van Zeist between 23 January and 14 February 2002, and the opinion of the court, rejecting the appeal, was issued on 14 March 2002.

Application to the European Court of Human Rights

On 12 September 2002 the applicant’s defence team lodged an application (number 33955/02) with the European Court of Human Rights in which they argued that the applicant’s right to a fair trial had been infringed by, inter alia, prejudicial pre-trial publicity. On 11 February 2003 the court ruled the application inadmissible on the basis that the applicant had failed to exhaust domestic remedies by raising these issues in the domestic forum.

Diplomatic developments

On 15 August 2003, Libya delivered a letter regarding the Lockerbie bombing to a meeting of the UN Security Council. The letter contained the following passages:

“… the remaining issues relating to fulfilment of all Security Council resolutions resulting from the Lockerbie incident have been resolved…

… Libya as a sovereign state:

... Has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan AM 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials;

...Has cooperated with the Scottish investigating authorities before and during the trial and pledges to cooperate in good faith with any further requests for information in connection with the Pan Am 103 investigation. Such cooperation would be extended in good faith through the usual channels;

... Has arranged for the payment of appropriate compensation…”

On 12 September 2003, the UN passed a resolution lifting all UN sanctions against Libya.

“Punishment part” hearing

At a hearing at the High Court in Glasgow on 24 November 2003 under the Convention Rights (Compliance) (Scotland) Act 2001, the punishment part of the applicant’s sentence was set at 27 years, again backdated to 5 April 1999. On 18 December 2003 the Lord Advocate appealed against the sentence as being unduly lenient.

Further Background

Photo: Air Accident Investigation Branch Report No: 2/1990 © Crown Copyright