Monday, 25 April 2016

Closing the Lockerbie case, not solving it

[This is the headline over an article by Simon Tisdall that was published in The Guardian on this date in 2000. It reads as follows:]

The long search for justice by the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie disaster is approaching a crucial point with the opening next week in the Netherlands of the trial of two Libyan suspects accused of sabotaging Pan Am flight 103. The plane crashed near the Scottish town of Lockerbie after exploding in mid-air, killing 270 people.

But the trial of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah may raise more questions than it answers. The two men, alleged to be agents of Libyan intelligence, are expected to deny all the charges levelled against them. And terrorism experts say it is almost inconceivable that, even if they were involved, they could have acted alone or without the knowledge of the government of Colonel Muammar Gadafy.

As a condition for finally handing over the two suspects, after a protracted legal wrangle, Libya stipulated that the special court to be convened in Zeist would not seek to put the Libyan state on trial but concentrate solely on the case against the two men.

Libya's longstanding involvement in international terrorism will, however, provide the context for the trial. The US state department lists Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism and has maintained bilateral sanctions against the country. Its status as one of a group of so-called "rogue states" is used by the US, for example, to justify its need for a new "Star Wars" defensive missile shield.

Col Gadafy is a long-standing bogyman of the west. The US air attacks on Tripoli in 1986, ordered by President Ronald Reagan, followed a Libyan-inspired attack on a Berlin discotheque used by American servicemen. At various times, Col Gadafy has expressed support for groups engaged in armed struggles, from Lebanon to Northern Ireland.

Libyan "diplomats" were responsible for the murder in London of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. Last May, a shipment of Scud missile parts bound for Libya were discovered at Gatwick airport - a breach of the international arms embargo against Libya. And earlier this year, it was alleged that the British intelligence service, MI6, had at one time plotted to assassinate Col Gadafy.

Despite Libya's bloody track record, the Lockerbie attack was widely reported at the time to have been commissioned and paid for by Iran, which was said to be determined to avenge the earlier, accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane over the Gulf by the American navy ship, the USS Vincennes. The Iranians allegedly employed a Syrian-based terrorist group as middlemen. Under this theory, the Libyans were merely the "bag men" and the two suspects are fall-guys for a much wider plot.

Col Gadafy has been trying to clean up his image recently. His agreement to pay compensation for the death of WPC Fletcher, and his handing over of the Lockerbie suspects last April, brought a resumption of diplomatic ties with Britain, which has now sent an ambassador back to Tripoli. This week, Sir John Kerr, the top Foreign Office civil servant, will pursue this improvement in relations with a personal visit to Libya. Even the US has reopened informal diplomatic contacts.

Col Gadafy has also returned to the Organisation of African Unity fold, after many years of self-imposed isolation. And he attended the recent EU-Africa summit meeting in Cairo. Although on his best behaviour, he could not resist a characteristic tirade against the former colonial powers' African legacy.

The EU has lifted most remaining sanctions on Libya, although a proposal by Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, to invite Col Gadafy to Brussels was withdrawn recently amid much embarrassment.

Behind this thaw lies economic self-interest - Libya has important oil reserves and untapped commercial potential - and a desire to encourage Col Gadafy to adopt less threatening policies; put simply, to bring Libya in from the cold.

Thus while the Zeist trial may finally help bring the long-suffering families of the Lockerbie victims some sense of vindication, it may be unable to uncover the whole story of what really happened to flight 103. And suspicions will persist that governments as far apart as Tehran and Washington share a common interest in bringing the affair to a conclusion, however unsatisfactory - and in drawing a veil over the many murky and bloody episodes which comprised the West's undeclared 20-year war with Col Gadafy.

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