[What follows is an item originally posted on this blog on this date five years ago:]
[The following are excerpts relating to Lockerbie from a long essay entitled "Who said Gaddafi had to go?" by Hugh Roberts in the November 2011 edition of the London Review of Books. The whole essay merits close study:]
As early as 1987 he was experimenting with liberalisation: allowing private trading, reining in the Revolutionary Committees and reducing their powers, allowing Libyans to travel to neighbouring countries, returning confiscated passports, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, inviting exiles to return with assurances that they would not be persecuted, and even meeting opposition leaders to explore the possibility of reconciliation while acknowledging that serious abuses had occurred and that Libya lacked the rule of law. These reforms implied a shift towards constitutional government, the most notable elements being Gaddafi’s proposals for the codification of citizens’ rights and punishable crimes, which were meant to put an end to arbitrary arrests. This line of development was cut short by the imposition of international sanctions in 1992 in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing: a national emergency that reinforced the regime’s conservative wing and ruled out risky reform for more than a decade. It was only in 2003-4, after Tripoli had paid a massive sum in compensation to the bereaved families in 2002 (having already surrendered Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhima for trial in 1999), that sanctions were lifted, at which point a new reforming current headed by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam emerged within the regime. (...)
Since February, it has been relentlessly asserted that the Libyan government was responsible both for the bombing of a Berlin disco on 5 April 1986 and the Lockerbie bombing on 21 December 1988. News of Gaddafi’s violent end was greeted with satisfaction by the families of the American victims of Lockerbie, understandably full of bitterness towards the man they have been assured by the US government and the press ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103. But many informed observers have long wondered about these two stories, especially Lockerbie. Jim Swire, the spokesman of UK Families Flight 103, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the official version. Hans Köchler, an Austrian jurist appointed by the UN as an independent observer at the trial, expressed concern about the way it was conducted (notably about the role of two US Justice Department officials who sat next to the Scottish prosecuting counsel throughout and appeared to be giving them instructions). Köchler described al-Megrahi’s conviction as ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice’. Swire, who also sat through the trial, subsequently launched the Justice for Megrahi campaign. In a resumé of Gaddafi’s career shown on BBC World Service Television on the night of 20 October, John Simpson stopped well short of endorsing either charge, noting of the Berlin bombing that ‘it may or may not have been Colonel Gaddafi’s work,’ an honest formula that acknowledged the room for doubt. Of Lockerbie he remarked cautiously that Libya subsequently ‘got the full blame’, a statement that is quite true.
It is often claimed by British and American government personnel and the Western press that Libya admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2003-4. This is untrue. As part of the deal with Washington and London, which included Libya paying $2.7 billion to the 270 victims’ families, the Libyan government in a letter to the president of the UN Security Council stated that Libya ‘has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials’. That this formula was agreed in negotiations between the Libyan and British (if not also American) governments was made clear when it was echoed word for word by Jack Straw in the House of Commons. The formula allowed the government to give the public the impression that Libya was indeed guilty, while also allowing Tripoli to say that it had admitted nothing of the kind. The statement does not even mention al-Megrahi by name, much less acknowledge his guilt or that of the Libyan government, and any self-respecting government would sign up to the general principle that it is responsible for the actions of its officials. Tripoli’s position was spelled out by the prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, on 24 February 2004 on the Today programme: he made it clear that the payment of compensation did not imply an admission of guilt and explained that the Libyan government had ‘bought peace’.
The standards of proof underpinning Western judgments of Gaddafi’s Libya have not been high. The doubt over the Lockerbie trial verdict has encouraged rival theories about who really ordered the bombing, which have predictably been dubbed ‘conspiracy theories’. But the prosecution case in the Lockerbie trial was itself a conspiracy theory. And the meagre evidence adduced would have warranted acquittal on grounds of reasonable doubt, or, at most, the ‘not proven’ verdict that Scottish law allows for, rather than the unequivocally ‘guilty’ verdict brought in, oddly, on one defendant but not the other. I do not claim to know the truth of the Lockerbie affair, but the British are slow to forgive the authors of atrocities committed against them and their friends. So I find it hard to believe that a British government would have fallen over itself as it did in 2003-5 to welcome Libya back into the fold had it really held Gaddafi responsible. And in view of the number of Scottish victims of the bombing, it is equally hard to believe that SNP politicians would have countenanced al-Megrahi’s release if they believed the guilty verdict had been sound. The hypothesis that Libya and Gaddafi and al-Megrahi were framed is to be taken very seriously indeed. And if it were the case, it would follow that the greatly diminished prospect of reform from 1989 onwards as the regime battened down the hatches to weather international sanctions, the material suffering of the Libyan people during this period, and the aggravation of internal conflict (notably the Islamist terrorist campaign waged by the LIFG between 1995 and 1998) can all in some measure be laid at the West’s door.