Lockerbie: Unfinished Business

17 Feb

Lockerbie: Unfinished Business
When 270 people were killed in Britain’s worst terrorist atrocity, grieving father Jim Swire found his faith in his own country’s legal system shattered. His full shocking story is told in this Fringe First award-winning production by writer/performer David Benson, and director Hannah Eidinow.Using a blend of verbatim material and dramatisation, Benson presents Swire’s ongoing struggle to find the truth in a hard-hitting piece of political theatre with international relevance. The tragedy has met with new-found topicality since the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the man convicted for the bombings. This show reveals a very different story to the one in the headlines, casting doubt on the official version of events in an urgent and compelling piece of theatre.

Date: Friday 25 February   Cost: £11.50/£9.50 con Time: 8pm

Telling the other side of the Lockerbie tragedy

Award-winning performer David Benson talks to Steve Cramer about a powerful new piece of theatre that explores the Lockerbie tragedy from the point of view of a grieving parent

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic froth at the mouth about the alleged involvement of BP in the UK government’s prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. Meanwhile, the US and UK media conduct a carrion feast on the relative longevity of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and released on compassionate grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in August 2009, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. With such a furore going on it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the facts surrounding this man’s conviction are being obfuscated.

Writer, actor and Fringe veteran David Benson is determined to unearth the truth amidst all the synthetic anger. ‘I think people who feel outrage about this either haven’t looked properly at the facts, or just enjoy feeling outrage,’ he says. ‘They’re still talking about Megrahi as “The Lockerbie Bomber”, and I wish they’d acknowledge the huge doubt about whether he actually did it. I just wish that could be factored in to the conversation. We should at least be aware of it.’

More contentiously, he adds: ‘I think there’s a gap between press and government on the one hand, and the people on the other. While they [the media and government] maintain the fiction, a lot of people on the ground don’t believe it. When I hear people saying, “Oh, I thought he had cancer, but he’s still alive”, I think “Sod off, let him live as long as he can in the bosom of his family.” He should never have been in prison in the first place. My feeling is the whole compassionate release thing was because they knew he hadn’t done it, so they just wanted it off their hands.’

The case Benson is putting in his Fringe show, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is derived from an unpublished book by Peter Biddulph, Moving The World, which recounts the events of the Lockerbie bombing from the point of view of Dr Jim Swire, father of Flora Swire, one of the 270 people who died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish Borders. Benson has created a theatrical monologue in which Dr Swire’s point of view – which accords with several families of British victims of the tragedy – is aired. Benson takes the role of Dr Swire and makes a presentation of the facts of the case, as well as exploring Swire’s share of grief in the catastrophe.

Theatrically, the piece represents a challenge for Benson. ‘I’ve got to distil not only all of these facts into a one hour show, but also this man’s life from 21 December 1988 to the present day. I’m not going to try to imitate or impersonate Jim Swire, I’m just going to represent him as a character – I’m interested in telling the story very clearly and with as much accuracy as possible. It’s a highly emotional story, but he has to repress emotions in order to put his case across. As an actor, that’s the challenge: to create a character dealing with massive emotions but not showing them. There has to be a lot of factual stuff, but it’s also going to be examining what it’s like to be getting ready for Christmas, making Christmas calendars in the kitchen, and hearing your wife call from the living room: “There’s a plane gone down, come and look”, and realising your daughter’s on the plane, she’s dead. I want everyone in the room to think, “What would I do?”’

Some commentators have dismissed Swire as a man driven mad with grief, yet Benson’s adaptation undermines this notion by clearly and accurately tracing Swire’s journey from trust in the prosecution’s case through scepticism to disbelief as the Lockerbie trial unfolded.

‘Jim Swire went into each day of the trial. He went into it thinking we’d got the right guys,’ says Benson. ‘The Lord Advocate Peter Fraser said they had solid evidence, a watertight case. But all the evidence was that they had a witness who actually saw them make the bomb, put it in a suitcase and take it to Malta Airport. It turned out that the guy was a CIA informant, who was threatened with being cut off by the CIA and hung out to dry. His whole family was under threat. During the trial, documents were produced from unredacted records and it was clear the guy was presenting evidence to save his own skin. He was repudiated as a witness. The judges, having more or less dismissed his evidence, then used it in the summing up, even though it was shown to be totally unreliable. It was a grotesque parody of justice, a disgrace to the Scottish legal system.’

Benson goes on to discuss other aspects of the case such as the dubious forensic evidence, and the peculiar switch of focus of the Lockerbie investigation from Iran to Libya, at a time when Iran’s cooperation was required as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in the first of our two recent wars against Iraq.

Whatever you may think about Dr Swire’s account of the bombing, it certainly seems convenient that well-founded suspicions against Iran should have been dropped in favour of the [at the time] more recalcitrant Libyan government. The Iranian’s one-off payment of $11 million to the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command two days after the Lockerbie bombing is difficult to account for in the established theory of Libyan guilt. It’s also difficult not to suspect the Iranian desire for revenge against the US after the shooting down – at the cost of 290 lives – of a civilian Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, particularly given that no one stood trial for that tragedy.

‘It’s ironic really, because these days they [the United States] would love to go into Iran with all guns blazing,’ says Benson. ‘One way to seek redress for grief is revenge. Both the Americans and the Iranians sought this violent way of doing things, but Jim Swire has sought simple justice.’

Benson’s admiration for the courage and stoicism of Dr Swire is clear. It might, along with some rather disquieting reflections on our governments and Scotland’s justice system, emerge as the best reason to see this important piece of theatre.

From Deceit to Disclosure: The Politics of Official Inquiries in the UK

Extract from: Phil Scraton ‘From deceit to disclosure: the politics of official inquiries in the United Kingdom’ in Gilligan, G and Pratt, J Crime, Truth and Justice: Official inquiry, discourse, knowledge Cullompton;: Willan Publishing, 2004

On a visit to my MP to try and enlist his support for an independent inquiry into the [Lockerbie] disaster his main suggestion was that I should write to the Prime Minister.  I cried with frustration as I walked home.  And as I sat looking at the photographs of the ground where Peter made his last mark when he fell six miles from PanAm 103, I was filled with the sense that above all I owe it to him to find out the truth.

Pamela Dix, The Guardian 25 July 1998

Pamela Dix’s brother, Peter, was one of the 269 passengers on Flight PanAm 103 blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988.  What followed was a decade’s controversy concerning the involvement of US military and drugs agencies, a rogue CIA agent and unspecified amounts of heroin and currency carried on the flight.  With the security services handling the investigation, there was “silence from the police and a cacophony of theories from the media and politicians” (Cox and Foster, 1992:13).  An in-depth study of the circumstances concluded: “innocent people have been blamed for the bombing and the guilty remain free” (Ashton and Ferguson, 2001:11).

The lack of a public inquiry into the Lockerbie disaster was an extraordinary political decision. Pamela Dix vividly testifies that, for the bereaved, it generated “a burning sense of shock, anger and betrayal” as they sought the ‘truth’.  The international political intrigue surrounding the bombing and the public interest concerning cause, circumstances and consequences, suggested that a government-sponsored inquiry would be automatic.  Successive governments’ rejection of an inquiry implies that such an open process risked embarrassing and politically compromising public disclosures.

Pamela Dix and the Lockerbie bereaved are not exceptions.  Whenever a disaster or tragedy occurs, when people die in controversial circumstances, when miscarriages of justice are revealed and when children are neglected, abused or killed, grief-stricken relatives and survivors immediately demand a public inquiry.  Rarely are such calls a display of vengeance or blaming.  While responsibility, culpability and acknowledgement are significant, they rarely take precedence over ‘knowing’.  Of course, for those likely to be held liable there is a self-evident interest in masking, deflecting or denying the ‘truth’.

******

Extract taken from report: Scraton, P and Davis, H 1997 Beyond Disaster: Inter-Agency Conflict in the Aftermath of Disasters Home Office Emergency Planning Division

At 1903 hours on 21 December 1988, Pan-American Flight 103, a Boeing 747 carrying 259 passengers and crew, exploded at an altitude of 31,000 feet above South-West Scotland.  The explosion was subsequently found to have been caused by a bomb, described as an “improvised explosive device” by the Department of Transport Air Accidents Investigation Branch.  Debris and bodies fell over an area of 850 square miles, from the town of Lockerbie, throughout Dumfries and Galloway, Borders and Lothian, Cumbria and Northumberland, all the way to the North Sea.  It was the small town of Lockerbie, however, which immediately became synonymous with the disaster, as major sections of the aircraft fell on a residential area, killing eleven people, destroying homes, utility systems and blocking the main A74 road from England to Scotland (Emergency Planning College 1994:41).  Devastating to the bereaved, it also traumatised many on the ground who survived the fall of the aircraft from the sky (Jenike 1995).  The bomb was concealed in a baggage container which had been taken on board at Heathrow, transferred from a Frankfurt connecting flight.

The origins of the disaster remain controversial.  Its historical context was one of volatile and violent international politics in the Middle East, in which civil aviation traffic was targetted, among other objectives.  Anti-American feeling throughout the region had hardened after the US bombing of Libya in 1986, and the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes in July 1988.  It has been noted that the political and personal injury done to the Libyan leader Colonel Quadaffi by the first of these events motivated Libyan sponsored revenge against Flight 103.  In 1991 US and Scottish prosecutors released an indictment charging two Libyans with the attack.  Others, however, have expressed concerns regarding the motives of the US administration in discounting evidence which implicated the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), a group with alleged links to both Syria and Libya.  It has been suggested that the American Government had motives for ‘scapegoating’ Libya, ignoring the evidence that pointed to Syrian involvement in the bombing.  First, was the need to secure Syrian acquiescence in the Gulf War against Iraq.  Second, it has been suggested that the bomb was loaded onto the plane as ‘heroin’, on a CIA sanctioned route, as part of complicated negotiations regarding American hostages in Beirut (Stenhouse 1995; Goddard and Coleman 1993).  Such allegations, that government intelligence and drug agencies were ‘used’ by the bombers or even that a ‘rogue’ CIA agent may have actively helped in the bombing, emphasise the highly controversial and international, political nature of the disaster (Duffy 1992; Goddard and Coleman 1993).  Further, to the distress of their families, individual passengers were placed under suspicion of either planting the bomb or facilitating its placement (Cox and Foster 1992).

In July 1997 the German Government announced its reopening of its investigation following allegations by a “senior Tehran intelligence detector” (The Guardian 7 July 1997).  Abolhassem Mesbahi, an aide to Iran’s former President, informed German investigators that Iran “ordered and organised the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 … in reprisal for the US downing of a civilian Iranian aircraft five months before the Lockerbie atrocity.”  His allegations received credibility primarily because of his previous reliable track record in anti-terrorist cases.  The allegations centred specifically on orders given by the then Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.  Scottish investigators had no direct access to Mesbahi or his contention that the Iranian foreign minister had negotiated with Libya and the Palestinians over the details of the bombing.  In contrast to the Scottish investigation, which concluded that two Libyans placed the suitcase bomb on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt where it was eventually transferred to Flight 103, Mesbahi claimed that the bomb’s components were smuggled separately from Frankfurt to London by an Iran Air worker.  The bomb was then constructed in London and planted on Flight 103.

The relationship between effective security procedures and practices and commercial pressures is also important in considering the immediate context to the disaster.  Although Pan Am promoted its operations as having developed up-to-date security systems, “Behind the scenes there were indications that Pan Am’s new security was little more than window dressing” (Cox and Foster 1992:48).  The recruitment of inappropriate staff, inadequate staff training and the lack of appropriate and necessary equipment had already led to criticism from independent consultants and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  Additionally, procedures for screening luggage from connecting flights allegedly impaired Pan Am’s ability to match items to individual passengers, and were unable to detect plastic explosive.  The failure to issue a known, specific warning about an imminent terrorist threat to Pan Am via Frankfurt, and a warning given to government personnel yet withheld from the public, fuelled the subsequent controversy (Cox and Foster 1992).  In 1995 a federal jury in New York City awarded the widow of Michael Pescatore, a US citizen, $26 million, finding that Pan-Am failed to follow security regulations (Maclean’s 1 May 1995).

An inherent part of the problem concerning the theories which surround the disaster has been the issue of political interest.  Different parties clearly have had interests in establishing specific scenarios which transfer the focus of blame to other sources.  Within a context of international realpolitik, the obvious secrecy of international terrorist and intelligence organisations, and the eagerness of the international media for a story, it became inevitable that contradictory versions of events would emerge and receive wide publicity.  While all domestic disasters become absorbed in wide political and public debate, Lockerbie/Flight 103 was soon overtaken by the complexity of international politics in the fast-developing ‘new world order’.

None of this, however, was apparent at the time of the disaster.  Difficulties faced by the emergency services in responding to the disaster were exacerbated by communications problems.  Telephone systems were overloaded and additional units were dispatched from surrounding areas to the scene.  British Telecom’s redirection of 50 domestic lines for use by the emergency services compounded the problem, as members of the public, unable to contact their relatives in Lockerbie telephoned the police (Wilby 1990:193; Mitchell 1993:25).  At the peak of the response 36 ambulance crews and 20 fire tenders were at the Lockerbie scene, despite the relatively low number of injured.  The police had difficulty co-ordinating the overall emergency response due to the convergence of rescue services on the town.  This combined with the difficulties of communication.  The Radio Amateurs Emergency Network (RAYNET) provided valuable assistance from about 10.30 pm (Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council 1989; Wilby 1990; Mitchell 1993; Emergency Planning College 1994).

The rescue and evacuation demands at Lockerbie were relatively small.  It was a disaster in which many died, but only two people were seriously injured (Mitchell 1993:27).  The nature of the disaster, however, necessitated a large-scale and ongoing response in the aftermath.  First, the immediate needs of people evacuated from their homes had to be identified and addressed.  Between 350 and 400 people were evacuated, most of whom were accommodated with friends or relatives or taken into private homes or hotels in the town.  Families from 18 properties were unable to return to their homes, and 12 elderly residents were taken to residential homes.  Social Services and Housing staff worked closely in providing accommodation and emergency financial support where needed.  They also kept records on the whereabouts of residents (Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989).  Most residents, however, were able to return to their homes on the day after the disaster (Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council 1989).

Second, those who witnessed the disaster were in varying states of shock and needed psychological and emotional support.  They were fully aware of how close they had come to death and some had lost family or friends, others had lost their homes.  Further, Social Services had to work from a different base than usual as the Town Hall, their normal location, was initially used as a temporary mortuary.  Those who survived the disaster were local residents while those who died were mostly from outside the community.  This necessitated two quite distinct foci for the administration of care and support.  The survivors were local yet the bereaved would eventually make contact from all over the world.  A helpline was set-up and advertised by leaflets delivered to homes in the immediately affected area (Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989).  Other social work interventions included attending community initiatives and liaison with other services.  Community involvement over the longer-term was developed through establishing a Community Support Initiative (Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989; Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council 1989).

Third, the information needs of those beyond Lockerbie, including the bereaved and the media, required organised and informed responses.  By midnight on the 21 December, 300 queries had been handled at Lockerbie Town Hall, to where some callers were directed, unable to make contact on other numbers.  The Casualty Bureau in Glasgow, the Incident Control Centre at Lockerbie Academy and the helpline each provided information.  Finally, as bereaved relatives arrived in Lockerbie their emotional and practical needs required identification and appropriate response while an unprecedented criminal and medico-legal investigation was mobilised.  The vital importance of forensic evidence resulted in a massive search for wreckage and remains across nearly 850 square miles, involving approximately 2,000 personnel (Mitchell 1993:26).  The scale of the search contrasted with the intricate detail of the forensic processing.  Over four million pieces of debris were recovered and remains of the suitcase which had held the bomb were found 25 miles from Lockerbie.  The crucial piece of a circuit board, allegedly linking the bomb to Malta and smaller than a fingernail, was discovered in the shreds of a shirt (Cox and Foster 1992:218).  Given the political and criminal contexts of the bombing, all wreckage and remains were part of the investigative jigsaw, requiring meticulous research and collation.

On the night of the disaster the Regional Council’s Emergency Control Centre staff considered the provision of temporary mortuary facilities, but this was superseded by the decision of the Chief Constable that Lockerbie Town Hall should be used for this purpose.  According to later interviews with police officers, however, this was a decision “almost made for us and it was a decision over which we had little control” (Mitchell 1993:32).  It was a decision based on members of the public arriving at the Town Hall to report the finding of body remains, thus making it “a natural place”.  Its size and layout, however, rendered the Town Hall unsuitable as bodies had to be carried up and down winding stairs.  As was stated subsequently, “What should have been done is always clearer in retrospect, but a less suitable place for a mortuary than the town hall would have been hard to find” (quoted in Mitchell 1993:32).  The Regional Council was asked to identify more suitable premises, and by the 23 December a temporary mortuary was established at the local ice rink.  On 27 December, a further temporary facility was opened nearby in a factory (Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council 1989:22).

It was in the context of the crimino-medico-legal investigations that support for the bereaved was offered.  According to the Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council (1989:19) after the Lockerbie Disaster, it “operated a policy of total support for the Emergency Services”.  This included support for relatives on their arrival in Lockerbie through to their initial interviews with the police.  Social workers stayed at the hotels where relatives were accommodated, helping families to access information.  They were informed by the police when bodies were available for release (Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989:3.2-3.5).  Mitchell (1993:30) interviewed police officers involved in the response to Lockerbie.  He concluded:

(The relatives) … wanted access to the body.  It was important that the police balance humanitarian concerns with the practical and legal issues of body identification and release.

‘Balance’, however, was not achieved.  It was decided that relatives would not be allowed to see the bodies, a decision which, according to official reports, went apparently unchallenged by Social Services (Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council 1989; Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989).  The response of the relatives clearly caught the police by surprise:

“What then happened was that the relatives arrived and wanted to see exactly the spot where their loved ones had been found.  Several relatives wanted to see the crater and touch it.  It was unbelievable.  It’s something we would never have expected.” (Police Officer, quoted in Mitchell 1993:31)

After “some initial difficulties” the police, given prior warning, were willing to allow visits to the major crash sites (Dumfries and Galloway Department of Social Work 1989:3.2-3.7).  Despite the policy of “total support for the Emergency Services” there were “initial difficulties” in reaching agreement between police and social services over the social work presence during police interviews, visits to the sites and the wishes of relatives to have more information about the process of body identification and release (ibid:3.9).  Competing interests relating to resources also caused the cancellation of planned meetings in which social workers were to be addressed concerning their needs.  The rooms which had been allocated for that purpose were taken over, initially by the police, and then by the Lord Advocate (ibid:8.2).

************

Often it is the difficulty of obtaining reliable information from official sources that leaves families to find alternatives through their own resourcefulness.  Pamela Dix’s brother, Peter, was killed in the Lockerbie disaster.  She was at home on the night of the disaster, and although she knew he was flying to the USA that day, she did not know the details of the flight.  On seeing the television news her partner, John, was concerned but Pamela was convinced that Peter always flew Virgin or British Airways.  John, however, spent several hours trying to make contact via the emergency telephone line but without success.  While he was on the telephone Peter’s wife, Elizabeth, tried to contact them to let them know that according to his office there was a possibility that Peter had been on Pan Am Flight 103, although he had set off to the airport late, and had left his ticket at the office.  This was communicated via Croydon police to Pamela and John

Meanwhile, Elizabeth had contacted a journalist friend in the USA to see if he could establish if Peter had been on the flight.  They waited through the night and sometime between 3 am and 4 am he rang to say that Peter had been issued with a boarding pass.  The family was frustrated that they could not make contact on the emergency telephone number, and that they had received the information via a friend in the American media.  In Dublin Pamela’s brother, Ian, also tried the emergency numbers for a considerable time and was unable to make contact until about 1 am, when he supplied Peter’s details.  He was called back at 6 am by Heathrow police who informed him that Peter had been issued with a boarding pass.  As Pamela stated:

So officially it took … between trying to get information at about eight o’clock in the evening … it took until six o’clock the next morning to have official confirmation.

********

On learning of London-based information meetings, arranged by Pan-Am for American relatives, Pamela Dix’s family attended on the 24 December.  She remembers a representative of Kenyons, the funeral directors, stating that bodies “would be reconstructed” for viewing purposes.  Some relatives took exception to the way that this information was framed and their frustration became apparent.

Now it is very easy to say years later that he was under extreme stress, doing an exceptionally difficult job with very pushy people, but at the time all that mattered to us was that we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and that these people didn’t seem to understand that. (Pamela Dix, personal interview)

This frustration did not diminish.  As time passed, Pamela Dix’s family found it increasingly difficult to understand the inordinate delay in confirming her brother’s identification.  On several occasions detailed information was provided by the family to the police in Scotland and to Kenyons in London.  It included a dentist’s contact number and the assumption that Peter had a Green Card in his possession, which included a thumb-print and full-face identification.  Elizabeth, and Peter’s company’s doctor, offered photographs of Peter and were told that they would not be necessary.  The doctor who accompanied the family to Scotland had recently given Peter a medical examination and he offered to visually identify the body.  Throughout the process it was the family that initiated contact with the authorities.  Pamela estimated that they gave up to six separate identification interviews, either in person or by telephone:

Our frustration was growing … Every time we telephoned the incident centre … we were always speaking to another person, we always had to explain again who we were telephoning about, who we were, and our sense at that time was that all the information we were passing on about Peter was going into a black hole.  We never had a single named person to deal with any organisation, apart from the airline, who had assigned us our buddy … who made practical arrangements for us. (Pamela Dix, personal interview)

Eventually, after eleven days, Peter was identified through dental records and fingerprints.  Yet, Peter had been “fully recognisable”.  At the Inquiry they were shown photographs of Peter and, with them, his Green Card.  Lockerbie relatives had been the victims of a “blanket policy” decision to prohibit the bereaved from viewing bodies, whatever their condition.  She stated:

They took a policy decision at Lockerbie that there would be no visual identification … With hindsight, I know why they took some of these decisions, but the effect of a general policy decision in which there was no flexibility was two-fold; the first was to make us feel that they were all lumped-in together, that the dead were all just one big bundle, and that nobody was a single human being, and the second was the frustration that it was taking longer than it should have taken.

 

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