[This is the heading over an article just posted on Scottish national treasure Ian Bell's Prospero blog. A shorter version appears in The Sunday Herald. The blog version reads as follows:]
Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister until last Wednesday night, must be giving Her Majesty’s government a lot to think about. His insights into the state of the Gaddafi regime – if reliable – will be receiving undivided attention. His opinions on what might happen next will be scrutinised in minute detail. Above all, the question of what this defector really hopes to gain will surely keep MI6 busy for many an hour.
And then there’s Lockerbie. As the indefatigable Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, has already said, “This is a guy who knows everything”. Koussa’s flight is therefore “a fantastic day for those who seek the truth”. Specifically, Dr Swire wants to hear the former head of the Libyan Bureau for External Security explain the how and why, if Libya was responsible, of the atrocity. After almost 23 years of evasion, obstruction and power politics, at home and abroad, that’s little enough to ask.
Some caution is required, however. Koussa is not just the latest in a succession of rodents quitting the foundering SS Gaddafi. The charge sheet is a long one. The Libyan rebel administration in Benghazi wants him returned for trial for bloody crimes that have nothing to do with Lockerbie. His alleged involvement in terrorism and internal repression goes back a very long way. If the Colonel is due a visit to the International Criminal Court, so is Koussa.
Yet here he is, in effect, handing himself over to British custody without – so we are told – preconditions. We are further assured that immunity from prosecution has not been granted. So let’s get this straight: he has preferred to flee Tripoli while Gaddafi yet survives and chosen to risk the possibility – it should be a certainty – of a trial for mass murder in a Scottish court, and much else besides? Either he has proof that would stand every Lockerbie allegation on its head, or he is not much of a terrorist mastermind. Or things are not as they seem.
I’ve been wondering about that. Consider, for one example, a report from the Washington Post dated February 24. This described Koussa as “a key CIA contact in the war on terror and the removal of [Gaddafi’s] weapons of mass destruction”. The foreign minister was central, in other words, to the brief rehabilitation of the regime. Such were his crimes, according to the Post, “he cannot defect to the opposition like other top Libyan officials”. The consensus a month ago was that Koussa “may have no option now but to go down with the ship”.
Clearly, the so-called “envoy of death” had other ideas. Having been Gaddafi’s “point man in clandestine meetings with top CIA and British officials” he may have lost the dictator’s trust. He may therefore have gained some trust elsewhere, or secured a stock of that commodity some time ago. Flying into London with (supposedly) no guarantee of immunity from prosecution over Lockerbie and a host of other terrorist acts suggests a certain confidence, if nothing else.
Koussa could tell us, as Dr Swire says, a very great deal. For one thing, he was said to be at the heart of Libyan efforts to secure the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, personally issuing threats – the only relevant word – to Scottish ministers. He would know better than most what went on. He would certainly know why al-Megrahi came to be the only person convicted of the murders of 270 people in December of 1988, the shambolic legal process that sealed and resealed the conviction, and the persistent efforts of various governments, Britain’s above all, to deflect serious questions.
Instead, we have a “key CIA contact” who is either prepared to deal with his responsibility, if any, for Lockerbie, or a man well known to “British officials” who foresees no difficulties in that regard. William Hague, foreign secretary, reiterates his refusal to offer an immunity from British or international justice. Hague fails to clarify a more important point: is Koussa therefore under arrest? If not, why not?
Dumfries and Galloway Police certainly want a word, as does the Crown Office. [RB: So they say.] Both would be obliged to seek an interview with any member of the Libyan regime. That doesn’t exactly put an inquiring mind at rest, however. Our prosecution service has not been exactly quick on its toes when previous opportunities for interview/investigation have presented themselves.
When was a request lodged, for one example, to interview Mustafa Abdul Jalil, former Libyan justice minister and the first defector to claim to know “for certain” about the planning and execution of the 1988 atrocity? Lockerbie remains a scandal and an open wound because, to put it no higher, domestic agencies have failed repeatedly to resolve the issues at stake.
But Koussa is different, in any case, from all the other defectors who have told the western media what the media want to hear where Lockerbie is concerned. Simply to say “Gaddafi did it” when Nato aircraft are supporting a rebellion and your neck is at risk is not the same, not remotely the same, as providing chapter, verse, eye-witness testimony, and an explanation of your personal involvement, if any, in mass murder.
So another question falls to Hague. Can the British public, the Scottish public in particular, be assured that Koussa will not be leaving these shores, that there is no deal in place concerning the Lockerbie atrocity or any other crimes? The government has already conceded that Gaddafi might be allowed to slip away into exile if he yields to the Libyan rebellion. Is Koussa to be granted the same consideration?
Or is he, as some suspect, only in Britain to negotiate such an arrangement on behalf of the whole Tripoli gang? Does that also merit an “amnesty”? Not where Lockerbie is concerned, even if playing nice with Koussa is being presented, in all media outlets, as a necessary stratagem to persuade others to desert the Colonel.
An amnesty and a plane ticket might be the pragmatic way to prevent further bloodshed in Libya, even if it did little for the standing of the international court. As an answer to those bereaved by Lockerbie, however, it would count as (yet another) insult. If Koussa has resigned as foreign minister, as the government claims, he has no diplomatic immunity. If his crimes are as extensive as his victims and his enemies allege, he should be facing arrest irrespective of Pan Am 103. An “unscheduled visit”, as former foreign secretary Jack Straw creepily describes it, hardly fits the case.
Never mind the Dumfries and Galloway force: the Scottish government should be saying as much. A prior claim exists, in the names of 270 individuals, that in no sense impinges on the progress of the Libyan rebellion. The Edinburgh political and legal coterie can parrot the line – another fine little mystery – that al-Megrahi’s conviction was and remains safe. The fact is that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), after four years of study, found fully six grounds (still buried beneath legal manure) for doubt.
For Scotland, and for Scots law, that remains the heart of the thing. The $3 million paid by US authorities to a pair of Maltese “witnesses” who could not remember the weather, far less a face, might be explained. The conduct of the Camp Zeist trial – sufficiently contentious to have the UN’s observer, Professor Hans Kochler, decrying a “spectacular miscarriage” – could even be overlooked. The presence of intelligence officers in the well of the court itself could be chalked up to bitter – if infinitely suggestive – experience. But the SCCRC referral hangs over all talk of justice.
Koussa, if anyone, is central to everything where Lockerbie is concerned. Dr Swire is dead right about that. I only hesitate over celebrations because I find it hard to believe no deal has been done. The former foreign minister may have been in the frying pan. Would he really jump into the fire, unprompted, when there is serious talk of Gaddafi being allowed to escape into exile? Or are we supposed to believe that Koussa has grown himself a conscience?
With luck, some parliamentarian will be asking Hague these questions before long. Where Lockerbie is concerned it is not enough, and never was enough, just to say “Gaddafi did it”. If the order was his, the order was followed. How – for the purposes of argument – and by whom? It is a long time since blind obedience to orders was last accepted as any sort of excuse.
The British government’s approach to this little problem is liable to be fascinating. David Cameron has spent a great deal of parliamentary time condemning al-Megrahi’s release. He has said, repeatedly, that he would never have agreed to such a thing. He has dismissed the Scottish government’s arguments in favour of compassionate release. Our Dave is unflinching, by his own account, in matters of justice, terrorist crime and condign punishment. So let’s see, where Moussa Koussa is concerned, whether he is also consistent.
But consider: if the truth is ever allowed to escape, Koussa might not be the only double-dealer, home and abroad, who finds himself in an uncomfortable position. Yet again, I suspect, opinion is being nudged towards the belief that “Gaddafi did it” settles all questions. Simultaneously, a spurious Lockerbie “resolution” will be a handy distraction, no doubt, amid the Libyan aftermath.
And if Koussa winds up in the United States for the sake of “intelligence sharing” and old alliances, we will all be just a little wiser. Dr Swire and many others deserve better. But they always did.