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Still fighting for the truth 25 years on

Jim Swire, a retired GP who lost his daughter Flora in the deadly plane crash over Lockerbie, tells Ariadne Massa he never imagined he would still be fighting to uncover the truth nearly 25 years later.

The scene at Lockerbie at Christmas in 1988.The scene at Lockerbie at Christmas in 1988.

The threat of a terrorist attack on a Pan Am flight ahead of Christmas in 1988 was so real that the warning was pinned to a notice board in Moscow’s US embassy.

Staff wishing to return home before Christmas could change their booking in light of this threat, but being good American citizens they still had to book with an American airline, according to this notice.

Flora Swire, 23, had no such warning and was thrilled at her ‘luck’ to find a place had cropped up at the last minute on Pan Am 103 from Heathrow to JFK in New York to visit her boyfriend.

The scene at Lockerbie at Christmas in 1988.The scene at Lockerbie at Christmas in 1988.

In the week before Christmas, flights to the US are normally booked up, but Pan Am 103 was just two-thirds full.

On December 21, 1988, just one day short of her 24th birthday, she walked through Heathrow’s corridors – buoyant with her dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon and excited to reunite with her boyfriend – and boarded that plane.

Thirty-eight minutes later, Flora and 258 other passengers were murdered when a bomb exploded on the plane 30,000 feet over Lockerbie, killing another 11 on the ground.

“This is one of the most sinister and anger-provoking aspects of the whole disaster. Staff at the US Embassy in Moscow were warned about the threat to Pan Am aircraft – it was that specific; we have a copy of the notice that was put up,” Flora’s father, Jim Swire, says.

With his crop of white hair and piercing eyes under a shadow of bushy brows, Dr Swire’s face has become synonymous with the pain relatives of the victims have endured in the quest for truth on the Lockerbie bombing.

As the 25th anniversary of the atrocity inches closer, the Cambridge-educated doctor, who is in Malta for the opening of the play The Lockerbie Bomber, admits he never dreamt he would still be chasing the truth so many years on.

“I would have never believed anybody if they came up to me and said they can see the future, and in 25 years this will still be ongoing and the truth will not be out,” the 76-year-old says smiling wryly.

“I wouldn’t have ever given them a moment’s attention... my government had failed miserably to take appropriate action on the basis of what they knew before the disaster happened. That was a source of anger and a propellant to become a campaigner to get to the truth.”

Unlike many of the American families who lost their loved ones on the flight, Dr Swire does not believe the man convicted of the bombing – Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi – was guilty. Many Americans accuse him of rocking their closure and he has received much poisoned hate mail.

Nor does he believe any of court’s conclusions that the bomb left from Malta and was transferred to the ill-fated Pan Am flight through Frankfurt.

“I think Malta, like us the relatives, is a victim of this bogus story peddled in court,” he says.

Becoming a campaigner was far from his mind on the evening of one of the deadliest plane crashes. That night, with Christmas just four days away, Dr Swire was at home in England making a family calendar when news of a “terrible crash in Scotland came flashing on the telly”. As soon as he and his wife Jane heard the news they tried to get in touch with the authorities to find out more but they “couldn’t get any sense out of the people at Heathrow”.

In the end he rang up JFK in New York and asked for a passenger list, eventually confirming his eldest child Flora was on the aircraft.

When Dr Swire flew to Lockerbie to see Flora’s body the Lord Advocate of the day had issued orders that relatives were not allowed to see the bodies after a local hospital advised him it would be very upsetting.

Undeterred, he made friends with the chief pathologist in the mortuary and arranged to see Flora’s body. He was lucky to find her almost intact and asked for a lock of her hair.

“I still have it. It’s too precious to carry it with me,” he says, chocking back the tears that well up his eyes.

Did seeing her body intact give him peace of mind?

“One of the huge advantages for me having seen her body was that she had sustained a head injury which clearly was not due to impact of the ground but due to something that happened on the plane so I knew she had not suffered on her way to the ground.

I think Malta, like us the relatives, is a victim of this bogus story peddled in court

“But of course, for others this was the most difficult question – how much did they suffer? One passenger was found still strapped to the aircraft seat on the ground with one hand clutching blades of grass. Maybe some recovered consciousness which is a frightful aspect of it.”

Clearing his throat Dr Swire’s nimble mind returns to his first impression of Scottish police; a memory that started the decline of his faith in authorities.

“I’ve never said this publicly before not to denigrate the Scottish police… I got to the mortuary and saw Flora’s body. As I was coming away I was pinned against the wall by a Scottish policeman who said, ‘what the f*** are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here’.

“I said I’ve come to see my daughter’s body and he said, ‘you’d better sign this f****** form or you’re going into a cell’. That was my introduction really to Scottish policemen on the beat.

It was part of the horror of the whole thing – first I was prevented from seeing her body and then having conquered that, this was the treatment we got.”

At that point in time all he felt was sorrow, sadness and loss, not anger – “I was basically just numb”. He knew nothing then about how preventable this attack was and all the warnings his country had received beforehand.

He was also unaware of helicopters circling the wreckage or the burly men who appeared in Lockerbie – “unidentified Americans in spadefuls” who were on the crash site immediately, compromising the scene of the crime.

Dr Swire only started stumbling on the clues when he wrote in to The Times of London questioning how authorities failed to intercept the bomb. A man whose job it was to provide information to police services in Britain wrote back saying Dr Swire did not know what he was talking about.

But after he had written back this man discovered Dr Swire had lost a daughter on the plane and, feeling bad, decided to let him in on some information: a month before the Lockerbie bombing the British Department of Transport had received a comprehensive warning from West Germany that a fully automatic bomb was likely to be available for use against an aircraft.

The Department of Transport issued a warning to its security people at Heathrow: tape recorders may be modified into bombs and if they were uncertain they had to make sure “it was only carried in the hold of the aircraft”.

Dr Swire is still jolted by this audacious warning to put a suspect tape recorder in the hold when authorities had been tipped off that such bombs were wired to a barometric timer switch.

This would only trigger itself for explosion some seven to eight minutes after the aircraft was airborne. As the plane gains height – the air pressure drops sufficiently to activate the barometric timer.

“That was the start of my anger as I was able to read that warning and see the photographs. They had a warning which told them these bombs were automatic and it didn’t require a passenger on a plane to do it” he adds.

They were designed to be put in the hold on the aircraft ready to explode 35 to 40 minutes after take-off.

Dr Swire believes the Lockerbie bombing was Iran’s retaliation against the US for shooting down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 innocent people just five months earlier – “they have the motive”.

An American missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, mistook the civilian jetliner for a fighter plane and blew it out of the sky. The Americans did not apologise and instead awarded the captain a medal. This incensed the Iranians who vowed to “avenge the blood of our martyrs”.

At the time Iran was hand in glove with a Syrian group called the PFLP-GC, a pro-Palestinian group working under Ahmed Jibril; a relative of Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad.

His belief is the Iranians paid the Syrians to provide one of these sophisticated bombs.

Throughout the interview he punches holes through the verdict, constantly raising questions and backing up his arguments with concrete facts, aware that he risks being labelled a conspiracy theorist.

One of the important details left out of the trial at Camp Zeist was a break-in that occurred at Heathrow close to a shed where 16 hours later the baggage for Pan Am 103 was handled.

The watchman fed this information up the security chain but Heathrow decided to do nothing.

This information has long troubled Dr Swire, who has been piecing the clues for years, but he now suspects this break-in may have been a red herring designed to distract attention.

He believes the bomb was probably flown in a disarmed condition from Frankfurt, well before Lockerbie on an Iran Air flight, which had a facility close to where the baggage containers were on the night of the disaster.

The baggage handler, John Bedford, said during the trial that he had loaded about six suitcases into the container before leaving for a tea break. When he returned there were two more suitcases in the container which he had not loaded. He didn’t remove them.

Piecing his theory together, Dr Swire says the container was then rolled out over the tarmac to await the arrival of the feeder flight from Frankfurt, called Pan Am 103A.

“It’s clear the bomb could not have arrived on the Frankfurt flight that evening because it had not yet landed when this extra suitcase appeared in the container in Heathrow... For me the technology has been crucial in unravelling what was really done.”

Another contested piece of information, which is at the core of perverted justice, is a tiny piece of circuit board about the size of a fingernail, which the court had said was an exact copy of that used by Libya in timers.

This fragment was, to the naked eye, a perfect match establishing a strong link to Libya and being a key part of the story pinning the blame on Megrahi and Malta.

The only thing was that the one supposedly found on the scene had been made in a different way. One of the prosecuting forensic officers actually discovered the discrepancy of the coating on the copper, a fundamental difference from those the Libyans possessed. He noted this difference in a margin in his notes but then failed to share this information.

“It doesn’t look as if the fragment that was finally analysed could have even existed in 1988 let alone have been part of a timer that destroyed a plane,” Dr Swire says.

To further strengthen Dr Swire’s theory that Iran is to blame, within a week of Lockerbie American hostages held by Hezbollah, an Iranian backed group, started being freed.

“America was desperate to get its hostages back. The outcome of presidential elections depended on that happening,” he points out. “I think one of the most damaging consequences of this campaign is my complete loss of faith and trust in those who are representatives of the government we vote into power.”

Oh yes the truth will emerge, the question is will I be in a box by then?

Dr Swire did not always think Megrahi was innocent. He had personally travelled to Libya to persuade former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to allow his citizens to attend trial under Scottish law because they “would get the fairest trial they could hope for”.

This is where Dr Swire’s humour and wit surface. He recounts how he was pumped with fear and adrenaline ahead of his first visit in a reinforced concrete bunker in Tripoli surrounded by female bodyguards armed with AK47s.

“At the end of the interview I was sufficiently unafraid that I had a badge – Lockerbie: The Truth Must Be Known – that I wanted to pin on his robes. As I approached him with this badge, you could hear click, click, click as safety catches came off the AK47s,” he laughs heartily, adding it was only after that he realised the danger he had put himself in.

Reflecting on the aftermath of Lockerbie, he acknowledges the disaster has wrecked his personal life over the past 25 years.

Soon after the disaster he lost his partnership as a doctor because they were afraid his practice may become a terrorist target due to his visits to Gaddafi and his persistence to find the truth.

He felt pretty sore about that because “it was extraordinarily unlikely”, but, on the other hand, he reconciled their decision to boot him out with the acceptance that his attention was not fully on the job.

His dogged perseverance has also had an impact on his wife Jane and two younger children, Catherine and William.

“Our son is quite supportive but our daughter wants to forget this, which is an understandable reaction. I think she finds my position very difficult to cope with. It’s a bit similar to disturbing the closure of American relatives,” he says.

His wife, on the other hand, though never actively involved in his campaign, realised right from the beginning that “being a kind of pent-up sort of male, what they call an Alpha male or something”, he needed an outlet, but it was also his way grieving.

His wife has found it very difficult that he spends a large slab of his days on his computer writing away, which is one of the reasons why he has publicly announced his retirement from the front line.

“Now there are other officers and troops who will carry on this campaign,” adding that he will not be leaving completely, just making way for younger people with more energy to continue the fight for truth.

In the same breath he speaks about the next plan of action the families of the victims, himself included, plan to take, without revealing too much detail.

“Certain relatives have every intention of demanding a further appeal and they’re not going to wait much longer... If I’m still around and still able to talk and not totally gaga I’ll say this is going to Europe.

“We were blessed with a fantastic elder daughter, Flora, and somebody murdered her. We have an absolute right to know why she was murdered and why she wasn’t protected from being murdered by them.”

Does he believe the truth will ever emerge?

“Oh yes, the question is will I be in a box by the time the truth will come out.”

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