[What follows is a further extract from chapter 15 of The Colonel and I: My Life with Gaddafi by Daad Sharab. Articles about this book can be found in The National here and here. The previous extract on this blog can be read here.]
In 2005, al-Megrahi was transferred to the more relaxed surroundings of Greenock prison, where he served the rest of his sentence. I wasn’t surprised to find that he was depressed. In the early days of his captivity his family relocated to Scotland to be near him, but they encountered hostility from locals and soon moved back to Libya. The separation from his loved ones had clearly affected his mental health and he was not sleeping well. Al-Megrahi, who had five children, was most upset about missing the wedding of his only daughter. He told me that she’d come to Scotland with the marriage papers, for him to sign according to Arab custom. He’d cried for a week after her visit, he told me, adding: ‘Every day I spend here my children are growing up. My daughter was a child when I left Libya and now she is a woman. Please remind President Gaddafi.’
We spoke about al-Megrahi’s journey from Malta, where he worked for Libyan Arab Airlines, to the special court at Camp Zeist in The Netherlands where he was convicted in 2001. He was alleged to have used his position to evade lax security and smuggle the bomb into a suitcase on a flight which connected with Pan Am 103. At the prison I was interested to learn that he’d never met Gaddafi face-to-face and all his dealings, prior to being handed over for trial, had been with Abdullah Senussi in the intelligence office.
Al-Megrahi told me: ‘Senussi came to see me and said to me: “There is an agreement with the West to send you for trial, which the leader says you are free to accept or reject. No one will force you to go and you will be protected by us.”’
He gave himself up for his country but at the time he was sure he would not spend long behind bars, and this was eating away at him. He did not believe he’d received the fair trial that had been promised.
From what I observed, al-Megrahi was well treated and, in return, was a model prisoner. He was able to cook his own Halal food and sometimes used the prison gym, although he devoted most of his spare time to reading and researching his case. Satellite television was installed in his cell so that he could watch Arab stations, delighting other inmates who also had access to a host of new channels. Rather predictably, his unit became known as ‘the Gaddafi café’.
I was allowed to take a camera into my meeting with al-Megrahi at Barlinnie. Returning to Libya to present my report, I first showed Gaddafi photographs of myself with the prisoner. Until I explained his identity, the Colonel seemed to show no recognition of the man at my side. For anyone who still believes Gaddafi personally instructed the Lockerbie bomber, interpret that how you will.
I told Gaddafi of his countryman’s dismay about the passing years and apparent inaction by the Libyan government. He replied: ‘Meet him again. Tell him that I received his message and I will find a solution. Tell him that I promise he will be home soon.’ From that moment, the Colonel did everything possible to keep his case in the spotlight, also funding lawyers for his appeal and paying for investigators to gather new evidence.
When I next visited al-Megrahi, he was a frightened man. He’d become convinced there was a plot to assassinate him, by deliberately leaving the doors to his secure unit unlocked. ‘The other prisoners hate me,’ he told me. If what he was saying was true I knew he had good reason to be terrified, because the Lockerbie bomber was a prize scalp. I promised to pass on his concerns and, to the best of my knowledge he never suffered any harm in either prison.
In Libya he was regarded as a martyr. The Colonel’s wife, Safia, took Al-Megrahi’s wife, Aisha, under her wing. She was treated like a VIP, often appearing at functions and on Libyan television.
I liked al-Megrahi and we kept in touch. He had my mobile telephone number and occasionally I’d receive calls. We’d speak for a few minutes about the case and we exchanged letters. I used to urge him to keep his spirits up, and reassure him that he was always in Gaddafi’s thoughts.
Al-Megrahi was ultimately granted a second appeal, which I’m convinced would have cleared his name. The already weak case against him was gradually being dismantled, as it emerged key witnesses had been paid millions of dollars to testify. Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who picked out al-Megrahi as the man who bought the clothes which were found in the suitcase containing the bomb, was discredited. There was doubt he was even in Malta at the time, which would have blown the entire case out of the water.
Few people who have studied the evidence in any depth truly believed al-Megrahi was the bomber, or that Libya was behind the attack. Had the appeal gone ahead it would have been very embarrassing for the West and there was a good chance al-Megrahi would have ended up receiving compensation for wrongful imprisonment. There was also talk in Libya of suing Britain for the economic damage caused by the years of sanctions against Libya. Can you imagine that?
I was shocked when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. He was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds on 20 August 2009, when he was said to be terminally ill. Six days earlier he withdrew his appeal, explaining: ‘I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted. The choice which I made is a matter of sorrow, disappointment and anger, which I fear I will never overcome.’ It was just one more political deal over Lockerbie and his early release, after eight and a half years in prison, brought condemnation from the US. ‘We think it is a mistake,’ said President Barack Obama.
Many of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims were also angry but the decision was welcomed by Jim Swire, the doctor whose daughter was among the dead. As usual he gave a measured response, stating: ‘I feel despondent that Scotland and the West didn’t have the guts to allow this man’s second appeal to continue because I am convinced that had they done so it would have overturned the verdict against him.’
A survey in The Times revealed that 45 per cent of British people believed his release had more to do with oil. I don’t disagree. I’d urge anyone who is interested in the case to look at Dr Swire’s website, Lockerbietruth.com.
[to be continued]