[This is the headline over the most recent post on Ian Bell's blog. It reads as follows:]
“There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world,
and the worst of it is that half of them are true.”
Expressen’s Kassem Hamade has been filing non-stop from Libya since he found his way into the country. You can hardly blame him. It’s not often a journalist winds up in the middle of a revolution, with a historic tale unfolding wherever he happens to look. Hamade files like a man in a hurry.
His Swedish newspaper is one of Europe’s more lurid tabloids, which is, of course, saying something. At a glance, it seems to publish just about anything its war correspondent elects to send. Whether it then asks many questions is another matter. You don’t dick around, as the Swedes may or may not say, with world exclusives. Print first, worry later.
Hamade is either a very good journalist, or a very bad one. Which is to say that either he has an instinct for a tale, or more luck than is strictly credible. This week, in any case, Expressen’s man found himself outside “a local parliament building” in an unnamed Libyan town, just as someone important was being greeted by several hundred locals.
Given that it appears the gent in the “dark winter suit” and burgundy hat had only decided to switch sides and “join the people” on February 19, Hamade was luckier than usual. Here he was with a “40-minute interview” (readable in less than ten) with a top-level defector no more than three days after the event. This was smart work, on someone’s part.
Even better, the new-born patriot had the sound-bite of the year, perhaps of the decade: Gaddafi ordered the Lockerbie bombing. How about that?
Given that Mustafa Abdel-Jalil’s words reach us from Arabic via Swedish via (Googleised) English, we should probably exercise a little caution. This would set us apart from just about every newspaper, Scottish titles included, and web-site in the world, who excelled themselves if they remembered the word “claim”, and who otherwise didn’t give a toss. Gaddafi’s “justice minister” had spoken: gossip was proof.
Did any journalist, Hamade included, know anything at all about the erstwhile “Secretary of the General People’s Committee for Justice”, lately of Tripoli’s al-Salad Street, former recipient of numerous file-and-forget Amnesty petitions, nominal steward of an arbitrary system of murder, torture, kidnapping, and “disappearance”? Thought not.
Did anyone know how close – or not – this individual had ever been to Gaddafi, particularly in December of 1988? A mere detail.
Did anyone pause to wonder why Abdel-Jalil’s revulsion at a massacre – the first he had ever heard of in Libya? – had coincided neatly with the regime’s collapse? Did they ask what he might have to gain, or to lose? But that sort of talk can seriously damage a world exclusive.
Hamade appears not to have allowed such words to enter his head. He did at least ask whether Abdel-Jalil possesses such a thing as proof, however, but was reassured by the functionary’s claim to have “information that is 100% sure” and “nothing I think... 100%.”
As the week wore on, this turned out to be the evidence heard around the world. It was enough, as any glance at the web will show, for almost every media outlet on the planet to go on. For most, the exciting follow-up was Abdel-Jalil’s loyal promise that “the devil” (Gaddafi) will “die like Hitler”, rather than a simple, sceptical question or two.
A pity. Had anyone read on, they would have found that Hamade did in fact get a little more change from his 40-minute investment. Why couldn’t his subject – who seemed to have returned to the business of governing in short order – just spill the beans?
Answer: “It is not time to reveal everything now”. Why not? Second answer: “I do not want to reveal the names involved, for the sake of the country”.
Aside from the fact that numerous individuals around the world involved with the Lockerbie case could – and have – allowed themselves the same excuse, this was interesting. Many of Gaddafi’s once stalwart ministers and diplomats have hit the rat runs; Abdel-Jalil is no different. But he seals his discretion in an odd fashion.
So he names Gaddafi as a mass murderer: that will suit Washington and London. It won’t upset Edinburgh much, either. Another slaughter to add to a lunatic’s charge sheet, and to bury therein. If the lunatic winds up dead “like Hitler”, so much the better. But Abdel-Jalil seems to be extending his insurance cover: having named a name, he retains “names”, and all “for the sake of the country”.
Things took another turn on Friday night. With his usual taste for self-dramatisation, the BBC’s John Simpson secured an interview in the vicinity of Benghazi with an escapee from the crumbling regime more significant than Abdel-Jalil. Until the end of last week, General Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi was Gaddafi’s trusted Interior Minister. He has also known the Colonel for 47 years.
Here was still another Libyan big shot who suddenly found himself unable to stomach the day job. In his own account, al-Abidi was sent to Benghazi to crush the demonstrations there. When he decided to break the habit of a lifetime – or simply failed in the task – he pleaded with Gaddafi, he claims, not to bomb the protesters, and suffered an assassination attempt for his trouble.
So the general also felt the urge to “join the people”. He was also able to confirm that his former friend and leader will commit suicide or be killed. And the general also felt able to say for certain that Gaddafi had ordered the Lockerbie bombing.
Except he did nothing of the sort. Simpson, like Hamade, was content, oddly in this case, just to hear a lapsed member of the regime pin the blame for mass murder on his old boss. Nothing in the way of proof was sought. All that al-Abidi told the BBC’s correspondent was, “There is no doubt about it. Nothing happens without Gaddafi’s agreement. I’m sure this was a national, governmental decision.” What a coincidence: two superannuated thugs with the same gambit.
Writing on the BBC’s web-site, Simpson prefaced the general’s quote with the following: “Although he was a military man rather than a politician at the time of the Lockerbie bombing in the 1980s, he [al-Abidi] maintains that Col Gaddafi was personally responsible for the decision to blow up the Pan Am flight”.
There is no argument here for argument’s sake: if Gaddafi did it, he did it. But thus far we are being asked to accept – as the world is being asked to accept – the testimony of two men (no doubt there will be more) with skins to save and plenty of questions of their own still to answer. Yet even as they “confirm” they evade.
Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but persuasive testimony runs from remarks such as “It was common knowledge in the regime” to “I was there when he gave the order” to “This is how it was done”. The general was latterly Interior Minister, in Simpson’s words “one of the most powerful men in Libya”. Yet the best he can manage is “I’m sure this was a national, governmental decision”? What else would it be?
Stories and alibis are being assembled. Were you in the shoes of al-Abidi or Abdel-Jalil, bartering for your life and manoeuvring for a place in whatever power structure emerges when Gaddafi has gone, you would probably do the same. There’s no surprise in that.
My interest lies in how these off-handed confirmations, glib yet vague, connect with the Scottish justice system, the activities of successive British governments, and the statement of reasons – all 800-plus pages of it – produced by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in June of 2007 identifying “six grounds where (the Commission) believes that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred” in the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, “the Lockerbie Bomber”.
The short answer is that they do not, on the face of it, connect. Yet if there is somehow a connection the demand for explanations from the Scottish, British and American political and legal establishment is liable to become more, rather than less, intense. I’m betting we never reach that point. Our two new “witnesses” thus far resemble nothing more than a pair of concentration camp guards who know the game is up, and who rack their brains for tales to tell.
These two emerge from the fog of war with hands full of mist. Here in Scotland, meanwhile, that statement of reasons is locked still in a hall of legal mirrors, along with a Scottish government’s courage to insist on its legal right to inquire into the bombing. Which is worse?
In less than a week, a few evasive remarks by two tainted, desperate men have become common currency around the world, disseminated happily by those who know nothing, and gratefully by those who know better. Meanwhile, the evidence of crucial choices touching at the heart of justice lie buried from sight. Every party of government available to Scotland – Tory, Labour, and Nationalist – has been content to settle for that. Is it the questions they fear, or the answers? That could be settled easily enough.
Instead, we are asked to swallow the pronouncements of two individuals who worked hand in bloody glove with Gaddafi.
[Ian Bell ends his blog post with a graceful tribute to this blog. I find it difficult to express how much I appreciate this. To my mind Ian Bell (whom I have never met) is the best politics and current affairs commentator operating in the Scottish media today. Only Kenneth Roy and Iain Macwhirter play in the same league.
The following are excerpts from an article by Nigel Horne published yesterday on The First Post website:]
A senior member of Col Gaddafi's administration has claimed that Gaddafi himself ordered the the bombing of the PanAm jetliner which exploded over Lockerbie in December 1988, killing a total of 270 people, the majority of them Americans.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was Libya's justice minister until he resigned in protest at Gaddafi's orders to murder unarmed protesters, has told the Swedish tabloid Expressen that he possesses proof that Gaddafi gave the order.
Conspicuously, neither Abdel-Jalil nor the paper's correspondent, Kassem Hamade, can reveal what the 'proof' is. (...)
But is Abdel-Jalil telling the truth - or is this a convenient lie, told in the hope that Gaddafi will go to his grave with the secret intact?
The fact is, many politicians and journalists - not nutcase conspiracy theorists, but serious investigative reporters - who have observed and reported into the Lockerbie bombing from the outset have never been persuaded that Libya masterminded the attack. They remain convinced that Libya only ever acted as an agent for another Middle Eastern power and/or - as Alexander Cockburn reported here last year - that Libya and Megrahi were framed.
Iran, Syria, Hezbollah - all have been held up over the past two decades as likely candidates for ordering the bombing.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, still alive in Tripoli, will likely die without giving up his story: recent reports suggest the prostate cancer that was supposed to kill him in 2009 has spread through his body and he has little time left.
But if Gaddafi should die in some final conflagration as the Libyan endgame approaches, there is a real danger that the Lockerbie relatives seeking 'closure' will have been fooled if they accept Abdel-Jalil's claim.
Their best hope of learning the truth is that Gaddafi gets out of Libya alive and in handcuffs, to appear before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and that he is persuaded to tell the whole truth about the worst terrorist atrocity ever perpetrated on British soil.
Such is the nature of what he could tell the court, however, that there are some western governments who might prefer that he meets his end before that can happen.