Your Influence Counts ... Use It! The SPOTLIGHT by Liberty Lobby

Reprinted from, home of The SPOTLIGHT archive

PanAm Flight 103 Case

  • The case of the downed airliner, PanAm Flight 103, long linked to Libyans, has taken a surprise turn in court.
Exclusive to The SPOTLIGHT
By Martin Mann

The Libyan government, after enduring more than a decade of crippling economic sanctions and worldwide abuse for allegedly organizing the terrorist bombing that downed PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1998, is finally having its day in court -- and may well prove its innocence.

In a unique proceeding, two former Libyan state employees, named as the primary suspects in the case, are standing trial under Scottish law before three Scottish judges in the Netherlands, at a former U.S. air base converted into a high-security hall of justice.

The special court was set up after long years during which the U.S. claimed to have solid evidence of Libya's guilt in the midair explosion of the transatlantic flight that killed 270 people. Adopting the approach of the Bush administration, the Clinton White House demanded the extradition of two low-ranking Libyan suspects who had allegedly planted the bomb in a suitcase aboard the doomed aircraft.

But Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the unbending Libyan strongman, refused to hand over his countrymen without assurances that they would receive a fair and impartial trial in a neutral setting. That excluded the United States where "documents" released by the State Department and trumpeted by the mass media loudly condemned Libyan "state terrorism" well ahead of any evidentiary proceedings.

The U.S. case against the Qaddafi regime, replete with hearsay and dubious denunciations, nevertheless seemed to turn around one exhibit of what ap peared to be incontrovertible evidence: A thumbnail-sized metal fragment re covered from the wreckage of the downed PanAm plane.

According to the State Department's version, the fragment was identified as part of a sophisticated timing device made by the Swiss precision metal works of Bolier & Co. And the firm's own er, Edwin Bolier, had linked the tiny fragment to a miniaturized timer his company may have sold to the Libyans, the State Department's terrorism report claimed.

But when he was summoned to testify at the Libyans' trial earlier this month, Bolier blew a huge hole in the pro secution's case.

It turned out that this key witness had never even seen the all-important metal fragment recovered from the wreckage, merely a "fuzzy" photograph of it. And on being shown the real thing in court, Bolier asserted that he had been wrong to make any claims. This metal fragment, the doughty Swiss engineer testified under oath, did not come from his workshop at all.

Other pillars of the prosecution case crumbled as soon as they were presented in court.

Forensic scientist Thomas Hayek su per vised the crucial explosives re sidues tests on the downed plane's remains. As it turned out, he had been in charge of similar tests in an earlier trial of suspected Irish terrorists, who were convicted -- as it turned out, quite unjustly -- when Hayek testified he had found trace explosives on their gloves and clothing. He was proven wrong.

The conviction of the falsely accused Irish militants was overturned. But Hayek, who had been discredited, was allowed to take charge of the forensic examination of the wreckage assembled after the crash of PanAm 103.

Late last month, the shaken prosecution requested -- and received -- a 14-day trial recess to "review" its strategy.

But as the court reconvened, it was rocked by a new bombshell.

An Iranian defector, now in Turkish custody, identified as Ahmad Behba hani, told CBS News that he was a former high-ranking Iranian intelligence official with first-hand knowledge of numerous terrorist strikes, some of which he had organized himself.

Qaddafi did not plot the fatal sabotage of PanAm 103, Behbahani alleged. It was organized and financed by the Iranian government in retaliation for the July 1988 downing of an Iranian passenger flight by an American warship, the USS Vincennes, on patrol at the time in the Persian Gulf.

A number of Syrian-sponsored Pales tinian resistance fighters and some Libyan agents trained in Iran were also involved in the Lockerbie bombing, Behbahani asserted. But it was the Iran ians who were in command and paid the costs of the operation.

Moreover, according to Behbahani, the two Libyan agents on trial in the Netherlands did not plant the bomb aboard flight 103. That was done by Iran ian intelligence officers posing as Iran Air airline workers in Frankfurt, Germany, rather than in Malta, as the indictment alleged.

As this edition of The SPOTLIGHT went to press, Behbahani was being debriefed by Turkish and CIA interrogators at a secret location in Turkey, with key questions of this mysterious defector's credibility and the veracity of his account -- even his real identity -- still unclear.

But one thing is already clear, said Wolfgang Huehne, a German broadcast journalist who covered the first weeks of the Lockerbie trial before returning to his regular assignment in New York this month:

"Both the U.S. government and the press were plainly wrong to plunge into blaming this bombing on Libya without an unbiased examination of the evidence."