Saturday, 7 December 2013

Nelson Mandela and Abdelbaset Megrahi

[An article appears in today’s edition of The Herald headlined He brokered Lockerbie trial agreement.  It reads as follows:]

Nelson Mandela caused a stir when he called for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, to be released from his Glasgow cell and said he felt the Libyan had suffered an injustice.

He had visited the convicted Megrahi in Barlinnie prison in 2002 having been credited with helping to break the diplomatic deadlock between Libya, the US and Britain that allowed Megrahi's trial to go ahead.

The former South African president had helped to persuade Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan president, to hand over the two men accused of planting the bomb, convincing him that they would receive a fair trial.

Mandela was said, however, to have been disappointed when it was agreed that a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands was to try the men. He had favoured an international panel of judges.

The South African arrived at the Glasgow jail heavily guarded by a posse of police officers, diplomats and South African secret servicemen.

Mandela, who spent 27 years in Robben Island prison for his opposition to South Africa's apartheid regime, backed calls for a fresh appeal into Megrahi's conviction and an independent inquiry into the December 1988 bombing of the Pan Am jet, which claimed the lives of 270.

And he caused outrage when he pleaded to the Government for the Libyan to be transferred from Barlinnie to serve his minimum 20-year sentence in a Muslim country, such as Tunisia or Egypt, where he would not feel so isolated. He described Megrahi's solitary confinement as nothing short of "psychological persecution".

He said: "I profited a great deal by serving my sentence with other people. Our minds were occupied every day by something positive. For that reason it's difficult for me to believe that I was in jail for 27 years or so."

But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that the move was out of the question.

Mr Straw quoted a report by independent UN monitors who had visited Megrahi at Barlinnie and concluded that his conditions were "good, meeting all known national and international standards".

Mr Straw added that Megrahi's guards had shown "commendable awareness of, and respect for, cultural and religious differences".

Four years ago, when the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was under intense pressure following the release of the Libyan on compassionate grounds, it emerged the Scottish Government received a letter saying the former South African president expressed his support for the move.

In the letter to the Scottish government, Professor [Jakes] Gerwel, the chairperson the Mandela Foundation, said: "Mandela sincerely appreciates the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds."

It added: "Mandela played a central role in facilitating the handover of Megrahi and his fellow accused to the United Nations in order for them to stand trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands.

"His interest and involvement continued after the trial after visiting Mr Megrahi in prison.

"The decision to release him now, and allow him to return to Libya, is one which is therefore in line with his wishes."

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said there was "huge support" internationally for the decision to free Megrahi - who had terminal prostate cancer - to allow him to return home to Libya to die.

Mr Salmond said: "We have seen that Nelson Mandela has come out firmly in support, not just as the towering figure of humanitarian concern across the world in the last generation, but of course somebody who brokered the agreement that led to the Lockerbie trial in the first place."

He added: "Many people believe that you will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution." 

[An article published yesterday on the BBC News website contains the following:]

[Mandela’s] warmest praise was for Glasgow, for the support the city had given to him and his fellow prisoners.

"Whilst we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system and declared us to be free.

"It is for this reason that we respect, admire and above all, love you all."

Outside the City Chambers, Nelson Mandela lit up the grey October day, joining the dancers on stage and wowing the crowd with his own Mandela shuffle.

That was not the end of Nelson Mandela's connection with Scotland, or indeed with Glasgow.

Mr Mandela visited Megrahi in Barlinnie prison

He became a key figure in the negotiations which brought the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing to trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

Mandela argued the men ought to be tried in a neutral country

After Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted and brought to Scotland, Mandela visited him in Barlinnie.

I was there when he told a packed press conference inside the prison he believed Megrahi should be allowed a fresh appeal and should be transferred to serve his sentence in a Muslim country.

Seven years on, Nelson Mandela wrote to the Scottish government backing the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

[Rivonia is the title of a magnificent song written in 1963 by poet, singer and song-writer Hamish Henderson. You can listen to it here.]

1 comment:

  1. Throughout his life it was always the dedication.

    Totally unlike the sickening bunch of hypocrites we vote for today, he was one who seemed to always keep his integrity as the first priority, regardless of what it might cost him. Maybe because he had been down on the floor, and knew that he had nothing to fear.

    Maybe that is one reason why the greatest politicians we know always came from a transition into democracy, never from its continued existence.