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.

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