[On this date in 2009 the UK media were full of outraged reports about the “hero’s welcome” that Abdelbaset Megrahi had received on his arrival back in Tripoli. The report on the BBC News website is one of the less inflammatory. What follows is an article by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi that was published in The New York Times a few days later:]
Contrary to reports in the Western press, there was no “hero’s welcome” for Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi when he returned to Libya earlier this month.
There was not in fact any official reception for the return of Mr Megrahi, who had been convicted and imprisoned in Scotland for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The strong reactions to these misperceptions must not be allowed to impair the improvements in a mutually beneficial relationship between Libya and the West.
When I arrived at the airport with Mr Megrahi, there was not a single government official present. State and foreign news media were also barred from the event. If you were watching Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network, at the time the plane landed, you would have heard its correspondent complain that he was not allowed by Libyan authorities to go to the airport to cover Mr Megrahi’s arrival.
It is true that there were a few hundred people present. But most of them were members of Mr Megrahi’s large tribe, extended families being an important element in Libyan society. They had no official invitation, but it was hardly possible to prevent them from coming.
Coincidentally, the day Mr Megrahi landed was also the very day of the annual Libyan Youth Day, and many participants came to the airport after seeing coverage of Mr Megrahi’s release on British television. But this was not planned. Indeed, we sat in the plane on the tarmac until the police brought the crowd to order.
So, from the Libyan point of view, the reception given to Mr Megrahi was low-key. Had it been an official welcome, there would have been tens if not hundreds of thousands of people at the airport. And the event would have been carried live on state television.
At the same time, I was extremely happy for Mr Megrahi’s return. Convinced of his innocence, I have worked for years on his behalf, raising the issue at every meeting with British officials.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair recently confirmed my statement that Libya put Mr Megrahi’s release on the table at every meeting. He also made it clear that there was never any agreement by the British government to release Mr Megrahi as part of some quid pro quo on trade — a statement I can confirm.
Mr Megrahi was released for the right reasons. The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, freed Mr Megrahi, who is dying of cancer, on compassionate grounds. Mr MacAskill’s courageous decision demonstrates to the world that both justice and compassion can be achieved by people of good will. Despite the uproar over the release, others agree. A recent survey of Scottish lawyers showed that a majority of those surveyed agreed with the secretary’s decision.
It’s worth pointing out that we Libyans are far from the only ones who believe that Mr Megrahi is innocent of this terrible crime. In June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission determined that a “miscarriage of justice” may have occurred and referred the case to the High Court. A retired Scottish police officer who worked on the case has signed a statement saying that evidence was fabricated. The credibility of a key witness, a shopkeeper in Malta, has subsequently been disputed by the Scottish judge who presided in the review. Even the spokesman of a family group of Lockerbie victims has said that the group was not satisfied that the verdict in the Megrahi case was correct.
What’s more, although we Libyans believe that Mr Megrahi is innocent, we agreed in a civil action to pay the families of the victims, and we have done so. In fact, we could have withheld the final tranche of payments last year, because the United States had not kept its part of the deal, to fully normalize relations within the formally agreed-upon time frame. Still, we made the final payment as an act of good will.
The truth about Lockerbie will come out one day. Had Mr Megrahi been able to appeal his case through the court, we believe that his conviction would have been overturned. Mr Megrahi made the difficult decision to give up his promising appeal in order to spend his last days with his family.
Libya has worked with Britain, the United States and other Western countries for more than five years now to defuse the tensions of earlier times, and to promote trade, security and improved relations. I believe that clarifying the facts in the Lockerbie case can only further assist this process.
I once again offer my deepest sympathy to the families and loved ones of those lost in the Lockerbie tragedy. They deserve justice. The best way to get it is through a public inquiry. We need to know the truth.