Gaddafi and me: the day Jim Swire took his life in his hands


By Kenneth Roy

Earlier this week, I enjoyed the company of that tenacious seeker-after-truth, Dr Jim Swire, at a conference. I had not met him socially before, and must confess that he confounded the image in my mind of a somewhat austere figure. He was both witty and sociable.

He even managed to be funny – actually, very funny – about the late Colonel Gaddafi whom he visited in the colonel’s tent (a heavily reinforced tent, naturally) four or five times as he toured the world in his search for the elusive facts about Lockerbie. Gaddafi was always protected by a phalanx of female bodyguards armed to the teeth, an unsettling experience for Dr Swire, who was not in the least confident that he would emerge from the tent in one piece. In fact, he was scared stiff.

But Old Etonians are made of stern stuff. On one occasion he was keen to pin on the colonel’s green robes a badge bearing the inscription ‘Pan Am flight 103 – the truth must be known’. As he advanced upon Gaddafi, he could hear the click-click-click of safety catches being released all around the room. (AK 47s for anyone interested in the detail of the armoury). A terrifying sound. But by then he was so close to Gaddafi that he reckoned if the  bodyguards shot him dead, they would not be able to avoid despatching the boss at the same time.

On another occasion, Gaddafi was in a foul mood and just sat there, silent and brooding. Dr Swire resorted to the ‘old schoolboy trick’ of looking repeatedly under the colonel’s table with an air of curiosity. Eventually Gaddafi demanded an explanation for this bizarre behaviour, as Jim Swire knew he would. ‘What are you doing, doc?’ Gaddafi asked thunderously. ‘I was just checking that you didn’t have Monica Lewinsky under there,’ said the doc. Gaddafi erupted into laughter, the heavy mood was broken, and the safety catches of the AK47s stayed in place.

Last weekend, in the wake of the dictator’s assassination, Dr Swire’s house in the Cotswolds was besieged by television crews. For 48 hours, he was the most interviewed person in the country. How much longer can he remain in the forefront of the unresolved Lockerbie saga? He is 75 years old. The 23rd anniversary of the disaster will be commemorated a few days before Christmas. For all of those 23 years, since the murder of his daughter Flora on the eve of her 24th birthday, Jim Swire has been engaged in an unceasing campaign for the truth about the mass murder of 270 innocent people.

I asked him plainly if he intended to go on until he dropped. He replied that he hoped to take a back seat. He hoped that he would be able to spend more time on Skye, which he loves. ‘But then something else crops up…’, I said. He did not demur.

Does this mean that Megrahi has breached his conditions of licence? Probably. But nothing will be done: the man is close to death.

The next ‘something’ will be the death of Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber or the man wrongly convicted of the bombing depending on your point of view. Jim Swire sat through the trial at Camp Zeist, which became a little bit of Scotland for the duration of the hearing, having worked hard to bring Megrahi and his co-accused to justice for what he originally believed to be their crimes. By the end of the trial he was convinced of Megrahi’s innocence. When the panel of Scottish judges, sitting without a jury, convicted Megrahi, Dr Swire was so shocked that he fainted and had to be carried from the court.

After the trial, he studied the complete transcript of the evidence – all 12,000 pages. He is one of the very few people to have done so. It confirmed his belief that the conviction had been a tragic miscarriage of justice. Yet Dr Swire had assured Gaddafi – and anyone else who would listen – that there was no jurisdiction in the world more honourable or fair than Scotland’s.

I asked him where matters stood now.

He said he doubted if the Scottish authorities had heard anything from Megrahi since the beginning of this month. He has written to the Scottish Government more than once in recent weeks for information about this specific question, but has received no reply. Does this mean that Megrahi has breached his conditions of licence? Probably. But nothing will be done: the man is close to death.

When Megrahi dies, will anyone pursue the possibility of a second appeal against conviction? There was a suggestion at one time that Dr Swire himself would instigate such an appeal. He tells me he has been advised that an appeal would stand a better chance of being granted if it was raised by a member of the convicted man’s family. He hopes this will happen.

What is his view of Kenny MacAskill, who released Megrahi on compassionate grounds two years ago? Dr Swire has a high opinion of Scotland’s justice secretary, but believes that the Westminster government put pressure on Alex Salmond’s administration to free Megrahi. He doubts that we will ever know what form this pressure took or how strongly it was exerted. He regrets that Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill continue to assert the guilt of Megrahi.

As to the evidence retained by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, evidence not made known at the trial and which points strongly to a miscarriage of justice, Jim Swire believes that the commission ‘did its best’ but is pessimistic that this evidence will be published in full. He is sceptical that legislation ostensibly designed to facilitate its release will do any practical good (a view shared by the commission itself, as I revealed in SR some months ago).

With Gaddafi dead, Megrahi dying, and the establishment determined to protect its back, the truth about Lockerbie may not be revealed until long after most of us are dead – if ever.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review