Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Lockerbie and the Tripoli verdicts

[What follows is excerpted from a report published in today’s edition of The Herald:]

The Tripoli court also sentenced to death seven others, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

The Crown Office had previously commented on Senussi's potential value to the new inquiry when he was extradited from Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa, to Libya in September 2012.

Mr Mulholland and the FBI have previously stated their continuing belief Libya was behind the massacre and al-Megrahi carried out the operation.

But Professor Robert Black QC, one of the architects of the Camp Zeist trial which convicted al-Megrahi, has said that while the execution of Senussi would not have major implications for the Lockerbie case, Omar-Dorda's death may.

He said: "If Lockerbie was a Libyan operation, which I've yet to be convinced it was, I doubt if Senussi was in the loop. He was mainly concerned with internal security, ie keeping Gaddafi in power, rather than foreign operations.

"But the events in Tripoli do impact on Lockerbie in other ways. One of those sentenced to death is Abuzed Omar-Dorda, who was instrumental in brokering the arrangement that led the UK and USA eventually to agree to a non-jury trial in the Netherlands. A genuinely good guy."

Professor Black said another two Libyans with Lockerbie connections had been acquitted: Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, former Foreign Minister who chaired the Libyan government committee that dealt with securing a Lockerbie trial and, later, with the ramifications of the guilty verdict against Megrahi, and Mohammed Zwai who was, for most of the relevant period during which the [fallout from the] Lockerbie trial was being considered, Libyan ambassador in London.

Dr Jim Swire, the public face of the British families of the Lockerbie victims and sceptic over the role of al-Megrahi and Libya, said he believed the executions were "irrelevant" to resolve any outstanding questions over the tragedy.

But he also described the Tripoli decisions as a "put down for the concept of international justice".

He added: "I had hoped vainly these guys would be handed over to international criminal courts, given a fair trial and no death sentence imposed. They have been tried in a court which wouldn't be recognised outside Libya.

"I'm particularly sad about Dorda, who I knew well and met many times."

A need to re-establish criminal justice system's reputation

[What follows is the text of a report published in the Sunday Post on this date in 2007:]

Bid to restore Scottish legal reputation

Foreign judges for al-Megrahi appeal

By Paul Johnson

An MSP wants the court hearing the Lockerbie bomber’s appeal to include at least two international judges.He says it’s a bid to restore the reputation of the Scottish legal system.The call came in a letter from SNP backbencher Alex Neil to the Lord President of the Court of Session, Lord Hamilton on Thursday. He claims his idea has the support of Lockerbie campaigner Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter, Flora, died in the bombing, plus former MP Tam Dalyell and Iain McKie, father of “fingerprint case detective” Shirley.

It also has the backing of Professor Robert Black, who originally suggested holding the trial in a neutral country.

Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was jailed in 2001 for the 1988 atrocity. But the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission recently said he could go ahead with a second appeal.

Mr Neil said, “I haven’t discussed my letter with Executive members, but Tam Dalyell, Iain McKie and Jim Swire are all very supportive. “If you look through the report of the Review Commission there are a lot of unanswered questions about due process and justice at the original trial. This brings into serious question aspects of the Scottish legal system.”

Mr Neil claimed the conduct of the McKie and Lockerbie cases has damaged the system’s international standing. “I know people in the US who are very critical about what has happened,” he added.

“There’s a need to re-establish the criminal justice system’s reputation. The world’s eyes will be on the appeal, so it’s critical justice is done and seen to be done. I feel people have been complacent about the effectiveness of the system because it has always been held up as something to admire. Those romantic memories of yesteryear will not sustain us tomorrow.”

Edinburgh University professor Robert Black is credited with drawing up procedures for the original trial which convinced Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi to hand over the accused men.

He said last night, “My January 1994 proposal for a non-jury trial in a neutral venue suggested foreign judges should be involved with a Scot presiding. But the UK Government insisted all the judges should be Scottish. I still think including foreign judges is a good idea.”

There is no precedent for this but Prof Black says it could be possible to extend the categories of people who can become temporary judges in the High Court to include foreign judges. “I think it would require legislation in the Scottish Parliament which would be easy to draft. The question is whether it would have majority support.”

A Justice Department spokesman said, “The priority is to allow the legal process to follow its natural course. This is very much a matter between Mr Neil and the Lord President.”

Tam Dalyell said, “I’ve been calling for an international element to the appeal hearing for some time. If not judges, what they might want to do is have some international observers.”

At al-Megrahi’s first appeal in 2002 a panel of five judges met at the special Scottish court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, led by then Lord President Lord Cullen.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Obeidi & Zwai acquitted, Dorda sentenced to death

[What follows is the text of a report published this afternoon on the Libya Herald website:]

As was widely expected, a court in Tripoli has sentenced Seif Al-Islam Qaddafi and Abdullah Senussi to death for war crimes during the 2011 revolution. Seven other senior member of the Qaddafi regime have also been given death sentences. They are:
  • Former prime minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi;
  • Abuzeid Dourda; former General Secretary of the General People’s Committee (effectively prime minister) then Qaddafi’s external intelligence chief;
  • Mansur Dhou, head of Qaddafi’s Tripoli internal security agency;
  • Milad Daman head of internal security;
  • Abdulhamid Ohida, an assistant to Senussi;
  • Awidat Ghandoor Noubi, responsible for Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committees in Tripoli;
  • Mundar Mukhtar Ghanaimi
Among the other former regime figures on trial, 23 were given jail terms from life imprisonment in the case of eight of the accused to five years for one of them. One person, Nuri Al-Jetlawi, was ordered to be detained at a psychiatric hospital while four were found innocent and freed: former foreign minister Abdulati Al–Obeidi, Ali Zway, Mohamed Al-Waher and Amer Abani.
In the case of Saif Al-Islam, who like Abdullah Senussi, was wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the guilty verdict and sentencing was effectively in absentia. He is being held in Zintan.
All those sentenced to death, as well as the others, have a right to appeal within 60 days. Even if there is no appeal, the sentences still have to be endorsed by the High Court. If the sentences are carried out in the case of Saif Al-Islam, Senussi and the other seven sentenced to death, execution ill be by firing squad.
The court proceedings, held at Hadba Al-Khadra prison, have attracted considerable criticism from Libyan and international human rights lawayers and activists. In the case of Saif Al-Islam, his British lawyer, John Jones, condemned it as “a show trial”. “The whole thing is illegitimate from start to finish… It’s judicially sanctioned execution”, he said.
The internationally recognised government in Beida has rejected the trial as unsafe.
[RB: I am delighted at the acquittal of Messrs Obeidi and Zwai, both of whom played an important and honourable part in resolving the Lockerbie impasse between Libya and the United Kingdom and United States. The conviction of and death sentence on Abuzed Dorda horrify me. As Libya’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations he also had a major rĂ´le in the resolution of the issue. I met all of them on many occasions and found them entirely trustworthy and likeable.]

Verdicts due in Tripoli trial of Gaddafi-era officials

Verdicts are expected today in the trial before a court in Tripoli of 37 Gaddafi-era officials. As well as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, they include figures who played a significant part in the resolution of the Lockerbie impasse between Libya and the United Kingdom and United States, including Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, Mohammed Belqasim Zwai and Abuzed Omar Dorda. See Libya court to rule on Gaddafi's son Saif, former officials on July 28 and Court to rule on Gaddafi’s son in war-torn Libya.

BBC News reports that Saif and eight others have been sentenced to death: None of the reports so far available (11.40 am) mentions Obeidi, Zwai and Dorda.

Paul Foot and the Lockerbie case

[On this date in 2004 the Pakistani newspaper Dawn published an obituary of the journalist Paul Foot, who had died ten days earlier. It was headlined A credit to his profession and reads in part:]

Another cause that Foot embraced was that of the Lockerbie victims' families, repeatedly expressing concern through much of the 1990s that in their supposed investigation of the case, the British and US governments were motivated by the need to score political points rather than a desire to find out the truth about the destruction of the Pan-Am flight over Scotland in 1988.

He noted that in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, the official line was that the bombing had been orchestrated by a Syrian-based Palestinian group at Iran's behest, in retaliation for the unprovoked shooting down of an Iranian passenger airliner by the US navy the previous year.

He wrote in 1995: "An interminable series in The Sunday Times in late 1989 named the gang, its leader, its bomb-maker and the Palestinian who had bought clothes in a Maltese boutique which ended up in the bomb suitcase."

Two years later, the blame suddenly shifted to Libya. By then Syria had signed up to the 1991 version of the coalition of the willing; it's co-operation was symbolically significant, so Hafez Al Assad could no longer be alienated. A different culprit therefore had to be selected.

Foot returned to the subject time and again, most recently in March this year, after the families of British Lockerbie victims complained that they had been taken for a ride by the government.

The families had backed Tony Blair's groundbreaking visit to the Libya on the grounds that it would yield some more details about how the attack was executed.The prime minister returned without any new information, nor any indication that the subject had even been broached with Libyan officials. In Foot's view, there was a simple explanation for this: Libya had nothing to reveal.

Making it clear that his opinion wasn't necessarily shared by the families, he concluded that Abdul Basit Al Megrahi, the former Libyan diplomat convicted and imprisoned for the bombing, is innocent "and his conviction is the last in the long line of British judges' miscarriages of criminal justice.

“This explanation is also a terrible indictment of the cynicism, hypocrisy and deceit of the British and US governments and their intelligence services. Which is probably why it has been so consistently and haughtily ignored."

Whether or not Foot's suspicions were well-founded, his dogged pursuit of the matter means that should the whole truth about Lockerbie ever emerge, he'll deserve a certain proportion of the credit.

[RB: Paul Foot’s Private Eye special report Lockerbie: The Flight from Justice can be read here.]

Monday, 27 July 2015

US Lockerbie relative attacks Francovich film project

[What follows is the text of a report published in The Herald on this date in 1994:]

The father of an American victim of the Lockerbie bombing has launched a bitter attack on documentary film maker Allan Francovich, who claims that his soon-to-be completed work on the destruction of PanAm flight 103 will make startling new revelations about the identity and background of the bombers.
In a letter in today's Herald, Mr Daniel Cohen, whose daughter Theodora was among the 270 people who died when the jetliner was bombed in December 1988, accuses Mr Francovich of being a ''Libyan dupe'' who is ''at best a journeyman film maker''.
The Herald reported last week that Mr Francovich's film was nearing completion. He maintained then that his efforts were being thwarted by a campaign to diminish his efforts and to undermine his professional standing.
He said anyone who challenged the official version of events, which was that the jet was bombed by the two Libyans subsequently charged by the Scottish and American authorities, was subjected to a tirade of abuse and harassment in the US.
Mr Francovich felt that the campaign was linked to Western intelligence agencies and also to the civil litigation involving PanAm and many relatives in the US courts.
However, Mr Cohen's position is at variance with that adopted by another relative, English GP Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora also died on flight 103. Last week, Dr Swire wrote to The Herald commending any attempt to investigate the affair further.
Yesterday, he said: ''I am sorry that the Cohens have taken this attitude but they lost a daughter at Lockerbie, as I did, and because of that I can forgive them anything. However, Allan Francovich, in the absence of anything else, is at least making the effort to inquire further and to challenge the current situation. Nobody else is doing that. Why not let him get on with it and then judge him on whatever he comes up with?''
Dr Swire, who is a leading campaigner on behalf of British relatives, added that the reason the affair was still wide open to speculation was because there had not been a trial of the two Libyans.
''However, the thing that makes me most angry about this whole affair is that there is continuing evidence to suggest that Western intelligence agencies were warned about what was going to happen. Francovich says he has hard evidence to this effect,'' he said.
''If it is true, I want the Western intelligence agencies to know that they can't just play about with evidence like this as if it was of no importance because at the end of the day a lot of people died.''
In Paris yesterday where he was continuing to work on the film, provisionally entitled Maltese Double Cross, Mr Francovich said the charges which Mr Cohen had levelled against him were those he had often made since filming started last autumn.
''He mentions my reputation as a film maker. Well it is probably not for me to say but my work has been shown at film festivals all over the world. I have won prestigious awards and my films have been shown on BBC and Channel 4.
''He says that our negotiations with Channel 4 for broadcasting the Lockerbie film were thwarted because we had been 'bragging' about the film. Frankly, that is nonsense. The negotiations were discreet in the extreme and I still maintain that they became public by means of telephone surveillance and because of a campaign mounted by someone acting on behalf of certain relatives' interests in the US,'' said Mr Francovich.
''Mr Cohen says that the British Government has never said that they were going to ban the film.
''Well, it wasn't me who originally said that they had. These were stories printed in the Scottish press quoting unnamed Government sources.''
Mr Francovich has also been accused by Mr Cohen of being funded by the Libyans. This follows the revelation that the Lonrho subsidiary which Mr Francovich says commissioned the film was itself partly funded by the Libyan Arab Finance Company.
Mr Francovich said yesterday: ''I can only say this over and over again. This is not a pro-Gaddafi film and the public will be able to come to their own conclusions when it is shown. Frankly, this assertion is probably actionable and it may well be that our production company's lawyers will have to take legal action if the Cohens continue with this campaign against me.”

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The case that won’t go away

[This is the headline over an article by John Wight published on this date in 2010 on the Socialist Unity website. It reads as follows:]

The case of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, and the controversy surrounding his release on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Government last year, refuses to go away.

At time of writing both Kenny McAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary responsible for releasing Mr Megrahi, and Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, have turned down requests to appear before a US Senate Committee Hearing into Megrahi’s release and whether or not any back door deals between the Libyan and British governments involving BP had any bearing on it.

The stridency and vehemence of the criticism that came from the US at the time of Megrahi’s release, and which continues to this day, reflects the double standards, hypocrisy, and dissembling which denotes US relations with the rest of the world.

Convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2001, 11 years after the bombing was carried out, and after a trial in the Netherlands conducted under the strictures of the Scottish legal system, which for the uninitiated remains separate and distinct from its counterpart in the rest of the UK, Megrahi has consistently protested his innocence of the biggest terrorist attack ever committed in Britain, when 270 people were killed after a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988. The victims comprised all 243 passengers and 16 crew members on board, along with 11 residents of the small Scottish town which gave its name to the atrocity thereafter.

Some of the relatives of the victims had consistently cast doubt over Megrahi’s conviction. One of those, relatives Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, told BBC radio at the time of his release. “I don’t believe the verdict is right. It would be an abominable cruelty to force this man to die in prison.” Other relatives remained circumspect and had called for Megrahi’s scheduled appeal hearing, which he dropped a few days before his release, to go ahead. Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter died in the attack, said. “I am not absolutely convinced of Megrahi’s guilt nor of his innocence. We simply at this point do not know enough to be able to make that judgment.”

In contradistinction, victims’ families in the US had called for Megrahi to complete his sentence in Scotland and continue to be convinced of his guilt. In this they’ve been joined by their government, which in the days and weeks leading up to the Libyan’s release made strong representation to Kenny MacAskill in the form of public statements, letters from ranking senators, and even a personal phone call from US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Despite such an outpouring of protest in advance and in the wake of Megrahi’s release, and up to this day, it is well nigh certain that he was convicted and imprisoned for something he didn’t do.

During the original trial no material evidence was presented linking the Libyan to the bombing, let alone any evidence that he put the bomb on the plane or that he handled any explosives. Even the prosecution subsequently questioned the credibility of its star witness.

The central pillar of the prosecution’s case was that Megrahi wrapped the bomb in clothes before checking it on to an aircraft in Malta without boarding the aircraft himself. The bomb, the prosecution alleged, was subsequently transferred at Frankfurt on to the flight to London, and then loaded on to the flight to New York. Two years after the bombing Granada Television made a documentary of the event which included a dramatic reconstruction. In it a bag containing a bomb was loaded on to an Air Malta flight by a sinister-looking Arab, who then sloped off without boarding. Upset by the damage to its reputation, Air Malta sued Granada. The airline’s solicitors compiled a dossier of evidence demonstrating that all the bags checked on to the flight which Megrahi was supposed to have planted the bomb were accompanied by passengers and that none of those passengers travelled on to London.

The evidence was so compelling that Granada settled out of court.

Since the Crown never had much of a case against Megrahi, it was no surprise when the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) found prima facie evidence in June 2007 that the Libyan had suffered a miscarriage of justice and recommended that he be granted a second appeal.

The truth is that this entire case, from the bombing in 1988 all the way up to Megrahi’s release in 2009, reflects a shift in the geopolitical and strategic interests of the nations concerned. Back in 1988 Libya occupied the status of international pariah in the West. The Libyan government, then as now led by Colonel Gadaffi, at one time funded and supported national liberation organisations and movements as disparate as the Provisional IRA and Black September, as well as various militant groups throughout the developing world. Relations between Libya and the West reached their nadir in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration sought to overthrow the quixotic Libyan president. Indeed, a US airstrike in 1986, carried out from military bases in Britain, almost succeeded in killing Gadaffi, who only narrowly escaped.

The overwhelming view of informed opinion is that Lockerbie was the work of Iran in conjunction with the Syrians. The Palestinian splinter group, PFLP-GC, led by Ahmed Gibril, were contracted to carry out what was an act of retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger aircraft over the Strait of Hormuz in July 1988 by the USS Vincennes. It came just two years after the story broke that officials within US intelligence and the US Government had conducted secret arms deals with Iran in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages being held by Iranian backed militias in Lebanon. The money paid for the weapons was used to fund Contra death squads then operating in Nicaragua. In March 1988, Colonel Oliver North and John Poindexter, a former naval officer and National Security Advisor within the Reagan administration, were convicted in relation to the scandal, known to the world and to history as Iran-Contra.

The difference today is that Libya is no longer treated or perceived as a rogue state in the West. In fact, ever since renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programme in the wake of the US and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Colonel Gadaffi has been rehabilitated as a leader the West can do business with. Given its prodigious oil and gas reserves the official visits to Libya first by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2004, followed by former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in 2008, were as predictable as they were revelatory. It is known that BP in particular was keen for Blair to restore relations with Libya in order to allow access to Libyan oil reserves and lobbied the government to this effect in 2007.

Part of this deal on the Libyan side involved the release of Megrahi, a member of Libyan intelligence, who was sacrificed by his government to the arms of the Scottish Justice System in an attempt to break out of the country’s economic isolation and normalise relations with the West. The expectation was that he’d be found not guilty. The expectation proved wrong.

In 2009 a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) was drawn up between both countries. At the time the only Libyan being held within the UK prison system was Megrahi, thus preparing the ground for his release.

Conveniently, Blair and Straw landed the controversy on the lap of the SNP Scottish Government, citing jurisdiction, whose decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was made at the expense of his appeal going ahead. It was an appeal hearing which promised to reveal that his conviction had been bogus, a fact known to both the British and Americans at the time he was found guilty and sent to prison. The political fallout from such an eventuality would obviously have been enormous.

Regardless of the geopolitical context surrounding the Megrahi case the Scottish Government has been principled and correct in refusing to bow to US pressure both at the time of the release and now in refusing to appear in front of a Senate Hearing into the case. The issue of sovereignty is involved, as is the issue of jurisdiction.

The release of al-Megrahi was right and just. Relying on medical advice at the time, Kenny McAskill was entitled to believe that the prisoner had only three months to live. It was the decent thing to do to allow him to spend what time he had left with his family in Libya. That he’s survived this long is a moot point under the circumstances.

As for the victims of Lockerbie, justice for them continues to be denied as a result of the geopolitical machinations of their respective governments. Twas ever thus.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Megrahi's application for compassionate release

[It was on this date in 2009 that news broke that Abdelbaset Megrahi had submitted an application for compassionate release. The report on the BBC News website reads as follows:]

The man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing has asked to be released from jail on compassionate grounds.

Scottish ministers will now consider the application from Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer last year.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill will make the final decision.

If the application is successful, Megrahi's release from Greenock Prison would allow him to return to Libya without dropping his appeal.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman confirmed that ministers will now seek advice on the application.

Libya has already submitted a request to have Megrahi returned [under the Libya/UK prisoner transfer agreement].

A total of 270 people died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988.

According to The Herald newspaper, Mr MacAskill is thought to have released three terminally ill patients on compassionate grounds last year.

Traditionally, only applications from those with three months to live are granted.

Megrahi is currently being held in Greenock prison where he is receiving treatment for advanced stage prostate cancer.

South of Scotland MSP Christine Grahame, who has met Megrahi twice in recent months, said Scottish Prison Service officials had already informed her there was nowhere within the prison estate properly suited to managing his condition.

Earlier this month, she said: "This makes the case for compassionate release absolutely imperative.

"That option is not subject to judicial review and is the only sensible compromise position in light of the fresh evidence and Mr Megrahi's deteriorating health.

"The weight of evidence which has emerged combined with the serious doubts raised over the original evidence that was led at the trial have left me in no doubt of Mr Megrahi's innocence."

She added that if Megrahi was allowed to die in prison but it was later established he was innocent, people would question why the Scottish justice system "failed so dramatically".

[RB: In The Herald’s report I am quoted as saying: "Compassionate release seems to achieve the humanitarian objective of allowing Megrahi to die in his homeland among his extended family, along with the public interest and criminal justice objectives of allowing a court to rule upon the validity of an appeal in the case of a conviction that has been increasingly called into question."]

Friday, 24 July 2015

Lockerbie insurance lawsuit against US Government is still on track

[This is the headline over a report published today on the AllGov website. It reads as follows:]

In a landmark case, the US government has for the first time been denied a dismissal in a foreign claims lawsuit. The ruling by a federal judge means that the government could still be on the hook for nearly $100 million stemming from two 1980s Libyan terrorist attacks.

Three insurance companies have been trying for years to get reimbursed for claims they paid out as a result of the two Libya-sponsored terrorist attacks against airliners: EgyptAir 648 in 1985 and Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The insurers, Lloyd’s of London, New York Marine and General Insurance Co and Aviation & General Insurance Co, are seeking a combined $96 million for the two attacks ($55 million for Pam Am 103 and $41 million for EgyptAir 648).

The lawsuit is directed at the US government because Congress passed the Libyan Claims Resolution Act in 2008, which took the right to oversee suits against Libya away from federal courts’ jurisdiction. “Shortly afterward, the government stopped all suits pending against Libya,” according to Benjamin Lane at Insurance Business America.

That didn’t stop the three insurers from going to court to collect monies owed to their underwriters for paying for the Libyan-sponsored attacks 30 years ago. Lawyers for the plaintiffs convinced the US Court of Federal Claims to allow their lawsuit to proceed after Judge Thomas Wheeler denied a motion by government attorneys to dismiss the case. In its denial, the court said the companies have a legitimate property interest on which to base their claims and, more importantly, did something no federal court had done before.

“The case holds landmark status as the first time the government has been denied a dismissal in a foreign claims suit,” Lane wrote.

Wheeler said in his ruling: “Here, where plaintiffs were excluded from receiving any just compensation whatsoever, the court must decide whether the government violated the Fifth Amendment prohibition of takings without just compensation. Accordingly, the court finds that it is well within its jurisdiction to decide this takings claim against the United States.”

[RB: The history of this court action can be followed on this blog here.]