Thursday 28 January 2016

Lockerbie: A Sour Pill for Libya

[This is the headline over an article by Ashur Shamis originally published on the BBC News website on this date in 2002 and reproduced on the website. It reads as follows:]

The official Libyan media is paying only cursory attention to the Lockerbie appeal currently being heard at camp Zeist.

At best reports on the appeal come fourth on the news bulletins.

Considering how outspoken he has been in the past about Lockerbie, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's current silence is startling.

This could be because the regime is not confident of a favourable outcome in the appeal against the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.

Libya is hoping to draw the whole Lockerbie affair to a close. Tripoli is reported to have offered to pay billions of dollars in compensation to the families of the victims of the bombing, in return for closure on the issue.

United States and British officials, reported to be negotiating a settlement with representatives of the Libyan regime, are said to be pressing Libya for a settlement before the appeal is concluded.

Whichever way the appeal goes, Libya stands to lose financially and politically, or both.

'Ordinary Libyans powerless'

Like the government, most Libyans just want to see the Lockerbie affair concluded.

Libyans are well accustomed to the whimsical changes of direction of their leader, and to being powerless in the face of this whimsy.

Most Libyans are more likely to complain about the hardship of the dry season and traffic chaos in the cities.

Colonel Gaddafi's supporters still insist he is the arch-enemy of American imperialism and international Zionism.

However, most Libyans sympathise with al-Megrahi and his family, seeing them as hapless victims of a regime, which, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, adopted terrorism as a state policy.

The bombing of the Pan Am and French UTA flights, and the bombing of a Berlin discotheque - all acts in which the Gaddafi regime is at least implicated - are widely seen as elements of the Libyan leader's past coming back to haunt him.

But Libyans do worry about the billions of dollars their country will have to pay out in compensation.

Eventually, it is they who will end up suffering lower currency exchanged rates, reduced government salaries, higher prices and taxes, and run-down public services.

'Premature claims of victory'

Back in 1998, when Mr Gaddafi declared that he was ready to hand over the two Libyans suspected of the Lockerbie bombing for trial in the Netherlands, he sounded triumphant.

It took the Libyan leader eight years to reach this point - a period during which Libya came under an international air embargo and punitive US economic sanctions.

The country's economy was set back 10 years, its infrastructure deteriorated, and it became more and more isolated internationally.

When he finally did hand over the suspects in 1999, Colonel Gaddafi claimed credit domestically for defying the US by not handing over al-Megrahi and al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah for eight years, and he claimed credit internationally for allowing a trial to proceed by handing them over.

Deal struck?

Reports persist that a deal was struck with Colonel Gaddafi, though Western officials deny this.

It is said that he handed over the two Lockerbie suspects on condition that no other Libyan officials, including himself, would be dragged into the investigation or the trial.

At the time, the Libyan media hailed the outcome a victory and praised the virtues of the Scottish judiciary.

However, not only did the Lockerbie trial deliver an unexpected verdict in January 2001, but it also dragged out the conclusion of the affair.

One of the defendants was acquitted while al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence operative in Malta, was convicted of committing the atrocity and sentenced to life imprisonment.

'Ambiguous verdict'

This verdict gave everyone some cause for celebration. The families of the victims and the US and UK governments saw some form of justice being done.

However, the three Scottish judges freely admitted to "uncertainties and qualifications" in the evidence brought before them.

But, having considered the evidence as a whole, they decided it formed a convincing pattern, leaving them with no "reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the first accused".

This ambiguity in the judgement allowed Libya to argue that al-Megrahi was a "political hostage" and a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

The air travel embargo was lifted, but Libya continues to languish under damaging American trade sanctions.

The victory claimed by Colonel Gaddafi in 1999 is now looking very hollow indeed.

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