Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The legacy of Lockerbie

[This is part of the headline over an article published on the website of The Independent on this date in 2009. The following are excerpts:]

The saga of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was already murky enough, but now, to the doubts about the evidence against him, the alleged multi-million payouts to the prime prosecution witness, and the far-from-told story of US and British intelligence involvement, we can add suggestions of secret talks and trade deals, and the possibility that his release was not done in the name of compassionate justice, but that of oil, financial services and hotel-building.
This weekend, suspicious minds don't have to seek very far for the material to construct explanations other than the official ones. There is the meeting in 2007 between Colonel Gaddafi and Tony Blair, then still Prime Minister. Oil and gas deals mingled with the fate of Megrahi (then yet to be diagnosed with cancer), according to the Libyans. There's the meeting between Gaddafi's son and Peter Mandelson in the inevitable setting of a Rothschild villa. The Duke of York, batting for Britain as ever, is involved. There may have been, say some sources, many more meetings between British and Libyan officials – something which, one might think, a simple release on compassionate grounds would not warrant. There are British business leaders now openly rubbing their hands together at the suddenly revitalised opportunity for UK banks, oil interests, security contractors, and stores to move in on Libya's considerable available funds.
And then, underpinning all these, is another conspiracy, the one it all started with – the fact that some group of people somewhere conspired to blow up Pan Am flight 103, and succeeded. Today, 21 years, millions of words of testimony, countless investigations, and a trial on neutral territory under Scottish law later, we are really none the wiser about who murdered Flora Swire, Theodora Cohen, Richard Monetti, Alistair Berkley, Bill Cadman and 265 other victims of Britain's worst terrorist atrocity. And so, given all that is now emerging, doubters of the official line ask: do our governments even want to know who planted the bomb? Do they, perhaps, think that a can of worms is best left unopened in the cause of pacifying former pariah states?
These, then, are the over-heated speculations that have bubbled up in the absence of hard, reliable facts, of which there has always been a shortage in this case. The situation, until last autumn was this: Megrahi, head of security for Libyan Airlines based in Malta, and tied to his country's intelligence services, had been convicted in 2001 on circumstantial evidence of planting the bomb which brought down the American plane over the Scottish village of Lockerbie in December 1988. An appeal was being prepared, and the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had examined the evidence against Megrahi and found six grounds for a possible miscarriage of justice. The result of this could well have been the release of Megrahi, and avid calls for a re-opening of the case – the 2003 acceptance by Libya of responsibility for the bombing not withstanding.
But Megrahi had been feeling unwell, and in September last year he was taken from HMP Greenock to Inverclyde Royal Hospital for tests. A month later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Meanwhile, the appeal process ground on, getting into court on 28 April this year in Edinburgh. A day later, a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya, negotiated by Tony Blair as part of thawing relations between the two countries, came into force. The Libyans duly made an application for Megrahi to be moved to a Libyan jail, thereby handing the hottest of legal potatoes to the Holyrood government.
But as Megrahi's cancer was declared terminal, the Libyan applied for release on compassionate grounds. It fell to the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to decide on this. After representations – including the vehemently opposed ones of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and leading figures such as Senator John Kerry – he delivered his decision in 20 minutes on Thursday (...)
The reaction from relatives of US victims was unequivocal. Stan Maslowski of New Jersey, whose daughter Diane died on the flight, said: "This shows a terrorist can get away with murder." British families, meanwhile, were mainly supportive of Mr MacAskill. Martin Cadman, whose son Bill died in the bombing, said: "The trial was a farce. I think he was innocent." Anyone puzzled by this difference need look no further than the coverage of the case against Megrahi down the years. In Britain, doubts about the case against him have been long, and widely, aired. In the US, this has not been so. Thus, the extent of the compassion that people were prepared to extend to Megrahi was largely a matter of whether they felt he was guilty or innocent.
The case against him depended on the testimony of one Tony Gauci, a Maltese shop owner who says he sold Megrahi several items of clothing that were subsequently found to have been in the same case as the bomb. Mr Gauci was interviewed no fewer than 23 times by investigators, was alleged to have been coached by them, and subsequently said to have received payments of up to $2m from the US. Some, like former Scottish Lord Advocate Lord Fraser, say he is an unreliable witness ("not the full shilling", and "an apple short of a picnic" were his exact words). (...)
In the short term, a lot depends on Megrahi's illness. There must be many in Edinburgh and Westminster who will, without voicing such thoughts, be hoping his cancer runs its vicious course sooner rather than later. For if he were to survive much beyond three months, there would be many, especially in the US, pointing out that expedience, rather than compassion, was what really tempered British justice.
There is no evidence for such dealings, and so, in all likelihood, we will be left with only one true conspiracy: the one that caused it all – the one that sent 270 people to their deaths on a terrifying December night 21 years ago.

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