With grateful thanks to Professor Robert Black, Emeritus Professor of Scots Law, University of Edinburgh
Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, 74, a Libyan national, appeared in a federal court in Washington, DC, on Dec 12, 2022, charged in connection with the bombing that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland while flying from London to New York.
According to US prosecutors, Mas’ud made the bomb that blew up the plane on Dec 21, 1988, killing 270, including 11 people on the ground. Two other Libyans have been tried for the same crime: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted while his co-accused Lamin Fahima was acquitted in 2001. Al-Meghrahi protested his innocence until his 2012 death from prostate cancer in his Tripoli home. In fact, his conviction was widely criticized by the legal community and by United Nations observer Hans Kochler, who cited “foreign governmental and intelligence interference in the presentation of evidence.”
Mas’ud’s kidnapping and subsequent “extradition” to the US started in the poor suburb of Abu Salim, south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, where armed militias roam freely.
On the night of Nov 16, 2022, Mas’ud was getting ready for bed when half a dozen unmarked cars pulled up in front of his home. Four masked and armed men forced their way into his bedroom, dragged him out in his pajamas, shoved him into one of the cars and drove away. One of the masked men told the small crowd that quickly formed in the street that Mas’ud would be back soon. Abdel Moneim Al-Maryami, the family’s spokesman and Ma’sud’s nephew, described the shock for onlookers who “watched helplessly.”
That evening Mas’ud had just returned from his third visit to the hospital in a week. The septuagenarian suffers from a host of illnesses made worse during his decade-long incarceration in the notorious Al-Hadba prison in Tripoli, accused of preparing car bombs in Libya’s 2011 civil war. The US Justice Department alleges that Mas’ud first confessed to making the Lockerbie bomb in Al-Hadba prison, but the former director of that prison, Khalid Sharif, denies that Mas’ud ever made such a confession while he was there. Sharif, now living in exile in Turkey, was one of the top leaders of the organization known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. In 2004 the US listed this Afghanistan-based group as terrorists but unlisted it in 2015 after it participated in the 2011 US-NATO supported armed revolt that toppled former leader Muammar Qaddafi’s government.
The following morning the family started searching for Mas’ud, a daunting task because different militias have different detention centers. After a week and multiple visits to the headquarters of different militias, the offices of the prime minister and the prosecutor general, and different detention centers around Tripoli, Abdel Moneim was told where he was and allowed to visit him.
In detention Mas’ud told his visitors that nobody “interrogated him,” let alone explained why he was detained or by whom. Family members continued visiting until one day his son, Essam, went for a visit but was told his father had been taken to Misrata, some 186 miles (300 km) east of Tripoli. “He was handed over” to Joint Force, a notorious and powerful militia, Essam said.
No one mentioned the idea of handing him over to the US. In fact, Essam said, “they assured us that he was being kept there for his own safety.” Other family members had filed a kidnapping report with the police. Government officials denied knowing anything about the kidnapping. The prosecutor general denied issuing an arrest warrant and promised to investigate the matter.
Mas’ud made headlines on Dec 21, 2020, the 32nd anniversary of the bombing, when then-US Attorney General William Barr accused him of assembling the bomb and handing it over to Al-Megrahi in Malta.
Libyan laws do not permit the extradition of its citizens to stand trial abroad, and it has no extradition treaty with the US. In a BBC interview in 2021, Libya’s US-educated foreign minister, Najla El-Mangoush, said her government was “open” to the idea of extraditing suspect Mas’ud but “within the law.” Faced with a huge public outcry, El-Mangoush denied that she ever said she was open to Mas’ud’s extradition, forcing the BBC to release the video clip of the interview in which she made that claim.
The US and Libyan governments knew that Mas’ud could not legally be transferred to the US so they colluded with Joint Force, a militia loyal to Tripoli’s government, to grab him.
Just before midday on Dec 11, 2022, some Pan Am Flight 103 victims’ families received an “urgent update” email from the Scottish authorities updating them on their efforts to prosecute Mas’ud. The message’s closing line said the US “has obtained custody” of him.
I was in Paris, waiting for news because a friend had already alerted me to expect some. His family first heard the news from me after I spoke to their spokesman Abdel Moneim that morning.
On Dec 12, Mas’ud limped into Judge Robin Meriweather’s DC courtroom where he told the judge that he “cannot talk” before meeting his attorney. A day later, a Libyan businessman told me that he was ready to fund a defense team. But appointing the right defense team thousands of miles away is not an easy task for his family who are still in shock and confused by the conflicting advice they are getting from friends and volunteers trying to help them.
The fact that he was kidnapped should be reason enough to halt any further legal proceedings against him. But the US has a history of kidnapping suspects and sending them for interrogation to countries that use torture liberally.
On two previous occasions, US commandos kidnapped suspects from Libya to try them in the US. Ahmed Abu Khatallah, was kidnapped in 2014, and tried and convicted in the US for participating in the 2012 attack on the US compound in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In 2013 Abu Anas al-Libi was snatched and taken to US for trial accused of planning the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. He died of cancer in custody days before his trial. For this third kidnapping the US outsourced the dirty work to a local militia.
The news that Mas’ud had been kidnapped was condemned by Libya’s parliament, High Council of State (a consultative body), the national security adviser and the minister of justice. They also warned that handing him over to the US would be illegal and an infringement of Libyan sovereignty. However, none of them knew exactly what happened, and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Debeibeh kept silent. The uproar was repeated when Mas’ud was reported to have been sent to the US.
The public reaction has been supportive of Mas’ud and critical of the government in Tripoli. In a clumsy televised speech, Debeibeh attempted some damage control but instead made things worse. He said that “this man [Mas’ud] killed 270 innocent souls in cold blood,” but did not provide any evidence. Most Libyans mocked him and asked whether more Libyans would be sent to the US for Lockerbie bombing trials.
Rumors of more extraditions of Libyans intensified in the wake of a Jan. 12, 2023 unannounced visit of CIA Director William Burns. (...)
A second Lockerbie bombing trial is very unlikely. US prosecutors will try to avoid such a scenario because it could lead to re-examining the whole Lockerbie trial evidence of 2001, as well as evidence that has emerged since Al-Megrahi’s conviction. Doing so could unravel the entire case and cast serious doubts about the evidence used to convict Al-Megrahi 22 years ago and raise questions about Libya’s responsibility for the bombing.
Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the bombing and now represents UK victims’ families, argues that the United Nations, not the US, should try Mas’ud. He said “no one country can be the plaintiff, the prosecutor and the judge” in this case. His compatriot, law professor Robert Black, thinks Mas’ud can still “get a fair trial” in a US court. The professor believes that US prosecutors must prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Mas’ud made the device that destroyed the jumbo jet on that cold December night in 1988, that his bomb, and no other, caused the disaster and that Mas’ud knew that his bomb would be used for that purpose.
Professor Black, the primary figure behind the previous Lockerbie bombing trial in Camp Zeist under Scots law in The Netherlands, thinks it is not “essential” for US prosecutors to show how the bomb got on the plane in order to get a conviction. In such a scenario the evidence to convict Mas’ud will rest, heavily, on the analysis of the fragment of circuit board that the US claims was part of the timer that set the bomb off in midair. That tiny fragment, US investigators claim, was found in a Scottish field where debris from the plane was scattered. However, since that first Lockerbie trial, evidence has emerged demonstrating that the fragment was actually planted to frame Libya.
George Thompson, a former Scottish police officer turned private investigator, who has worked extensively on the case, claims to have the evidence to show exactly that. Thompson told me that he is ready to be a witness in the upcoming US trial, whenever that might be.
If convicted, Mas’ud is certain to face life imprisonment. In his first court appearance on Dec 12, prosecutors told him that they will not be seeking the death penalty. US former Attorney General Barr, in a BBC interview published the next day, said Mas’ud should receive the death penalty. Barr also said that Mas’ud’s alleged confession, should be admissible in court, despite concerns by others that it may have been coerced.
Mas’ud’s trial could take months to start and weeks to end. Regardless of the outcome, most Libyans believe it will not bring us any closer to the truth about Lockerbie.