Thursday, 1 September 2011

Lockerbie in Libya

[This is the heading over a section of a long article by Diana Johnstone entitled Gaddafi’s Libya as Demon published today on the CounterPunch website. The section reads in part:]

My visit to Libya in January 2007, to attend an international conference on the International Criminal Court, gave me the opportunity to hold private conversations with a number of well-educated Libyans who clearly knew a lot more about the West than the West knew about them. I was particularly interested in getting the take of unofficial Libyan citizens on two issues that at the time dominated Western perception of Libya: Lockerbie and the affair of the Bulgarian nurses. I should mention that I never got near Gaddafi, and the conference was sponsored by academics who held diverse opinions on important issues, often unlike those of the Leader, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. But on the issue of Lockerbie, I discovered two general widespread points of agreement.

On the one hand, nobody believed that Libya was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. It was taken for granted that Libya had been unfairly accused for political reasons.

On the other hand, it was clear that the sanctions imposed by the West to punish Libya for its alleged guilt had caused hardship and discontent. The power of the West both to impose sanctions and to project its images amounts to serious interference in the domestic politics of targeted countries, since very many people, especially the young, want to live in a “normal” country and may resent leaders who cause them to be treated as pariahs by the West. Therefore, it was understood that Gaddafi had finally given in to Western pressure to accept responsibility – but not guilt – for Lockerbie merely in order to get the unpopular sanctions lifted. The fact that he agreed to turn over two Libyan citizens to a Western court to be tried for the crime and to pay over two billion dollars of compensation to the victims was explicitly not an admission of guilt, but rather a response to blackmail by Great Powers in order to normalize relations and improve daily life.

This did not surprise me, since over the years I had read a lot about the Lockerbie case. Indeed, a great deal has been written exposing the weakness of the prosecution’s case, based on a totally implausible scenario (a bomb to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight was allegedly sent via airports in Malta, Frankfurt and London), technical “evidence” that had been tampered with by CIA agents, and a witness who was richly rewarded for testimony which did not fit the facts. All this has been told many times, for instance Andrew Cockburn in the CounterPunch newsletter [RB: A related account by Alexander Cockburn is available here], or the London Review of Books, The Framing of al-Megrahi by British lawyer Gareth Peirce. But the fact that the case has been repeatedly exposed by careful analysis as a probable frame-up has not made the slightest impression on mainstream media and politicians who continue to blast Gaddafi as the monster who ordered the Lockerbie massacre.

One may add that at the time of the event in 1988, it was widely assumed that Iran had ordered the attack in retaliation for US downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. When the United States, switching from its anti-Iran alliance with Iraq to war against Saddam Hussein, decided to accuse Libya instead, no motive was ever produced. But when a “dictator” has been stigmatized as a monster, no motive is needed. He just did it because that is the sort of thing evil dictators are supposed to do.

The two accused Libyan airline employees working in Malta had been put on trial in 2000 by three Scottish judges without a jury in a specially built court in the Netherlands. One of the Libyans was acquitted and the other, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison. The United Nations observer at this peculiar trial, Hans Köchler, called the guilty verdict “incomprehensible”, “arbitrary, even irrational” and noted “an air of international power politics” surrounding the proceedings.

On November 12, 2006, the Glasgow Sunday Herald quoted top State Department legal advisor Michael Scharf, who was the counsel to the US counter-terrorism bureau when the two Libyans were indicted for the bombing, as calling the case “so full of holes it was like Swiss cheese” and said it should never have gone to trial. He claimed the CIA and FBI had assured State Department officials there was an “iron-clad” case against the two Libyans, but that in reality the intelligence agencies knew well in advance of the trial that their star witness was “a liar”. But Great Powers can’t back down. Their sacred “credibility” is at stake. In short, they must keep lying to preserve the illusion of infallibility.

At the time I was in Tripoli, the defense team of the convicted Libyan was trying to appeal the conviction to a higher court. I was able to call on one of the lawyers on Megrahi’s defense team. I spent a long time in her office, trying to overcome her reluctance to speak about the case. Finally, she agreed to talk to me when I promised to keep our conversation to myself, so as not to risk harming the appeal. By now, the circumstances have changed drastically.

Here, briefly, is what she told me.

The Scottish judges were under enormous pressure to convict the two Libyans. After all, for years their guilt had been trumpeted by the United States demanding that they be “brought to justice”. A special court had been set up with the obvious purpose of convicting them. Yet the evidence which would merit conviction in a proper Scottish court was simply not there. The best the judges dared to do was to acquit one of the defendants and pass along the responsibility for acquitting the other to a higher court. But to the dismay of the Libyan defense team, the designated court of appeals evaded the dangerous issue (...)

[O]n June 28, 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which had been investigating the case since 2003, recommended that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi be granted a second appeal against his conviction. The Commission said it had uncovered six separate grounds for considering that the conviction may have been an injustice. The announcement caused a sensation in the small circles following the affair. It seemed that Scottish justice was courageous enough to assert itself and allow hearings that would expose the CIA frame-up.

That sort of thing may happen in movies, but the real world is something else.

A sordid bargain

What happened after that helped set the stage for the NATO attack on Libya this year.

Time passed. It was two years later, in April 2009, that the appeal finally was due to get underway. But meanwhile, behind the scenes, secret bargaining was going on, amid leaks and rumors.

On August 21, 2009, on grounds that he was suffering from terminal cancer, Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland by the Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill and allowed to “go home to die”.

Now, it so happens that in 2007, Tony Blair went to Libya to negotiate a British-Libyan agreement with Gaddafi covering law, extradition and prisoner transfer. Under this Prisoner Transfer Agreement, Libyan authorities asked for Megrahi to be sent home due to his illness.

The catch was that the Prisoner Transfer Agreement could be applied only when no legal proceedings were outstanding. So in order to benefit from it, Megrahi had to drop his appeal.

The matter is confused by the fact that he was formally released on “compassionate” grounds. One way or another, the deal was clear: al-Megrahi could go home, but the appeal was dead. Hans Koechler, UN-appointed special observer to the Lockerbie trial, thought Megrahi may have been subjected to “morally outrageous” blackmail to abandon his appeal against his will.

The sordid aspect of this bargain is that it deprived Megrahi of the right to clear his name, while leaving the CIA frame-up officially unexposed. There was nothing to counter the chorus of protestations from Hillary Clinton on down denouncing Scotland for having “freed the Lockerbie bomber”. Two years later, news that Megrahi has failed to die has elicited further indignation from Western media, who see this as proof that the UK had “sold the Lockerbie bomber for Libyan oil”. Naturally, the impression must be conveyed that the sly Libyan dictator tricked the naïve but greedy Brits into selling out their principles for petroleum.

But it is just as likely that it was the naïve Libyan dictator who was tricked by the unscrupulous British into thinking he had made a “gentleman’s agreement”. Rather than pursue an appeal which risked causing acute embarrassment to Western authorities, Megrahi could be released and the matter forgotten. The popular rejoicing at Megrahi’s return home was muted in Libya, but Western media pretended to be scandalized that a convicted mass murderer received a hero’s welcome. In reality, he was welcomed home discreetly as an innocent man who had been unjustly convicted, not as a mass murderer. And whenever he has been able to make himself heard, he has reiterated his desire to clear his name.


  1. The Commission said it had uncovered six separate grounds for considering that the conviction may have been an injustice. The announcement caused a sensation in the small circles following the affair. It seemed that Scottish justice was courageous enough to assert itself and allow hearings that would expose the CIA frame-up. What happened after that helped set the stage for the NATO attack on Libya this year.

    The NATO attack on Libya has been on the drawing board for at least 25 years (see Lockerbie: CIA 'fitted up' Gaddafi at the United Nations).

  2. This is an interesting article that would have been improved if it had explained the difference between the UK and Scottish governments, and why this was important to the release of Megrahi.

    It is evident that the writer regards the release of Megrahi on compassionate grounds as being somehow connected to Blair's 'deal in the desert', when this is very unlikely to be the case.

  3. A very good article although I am sceptical of the claim that "the Judges were under enormous pressure to convict the two Libyans." However I do think they had other considerations beyond the question of guilt or innocence.