[This is the first of a number of extracts from chapter 15 of The Colonel and I: My Life with Gaddafi by Daad Sharab that I shall be posting on this blog. Articles about her book can be found in The National here and here.]
A prison guard ushers me into a small room, containing only a table and a couple of chairs. Already seated is a bespectacled man, in his early fifties and with grey flecks in his brown hair, who is wearing a baggy tracksuit. Before him there’s a large file of documents and as I enter he stands to shake my hand. His grip is gentle and he appears a little nervous. When he speaks it’s almost in a whisper, although we are not being overheard.
During my time working for Gaddafi, the Lockerbie bombing and its aftermath provided a constant backdrop. It was the single issue that most occupied the Colonel’s mind and in 2003 I was summoned to the leader’s office, to be told he was sending me to Scotland to meet Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi. As far as most people were concerned this man had the blood of 270 innocent people on his hands. Outside Libya he was better known simply as the Lockerbie bomber.
Al-Megrahi spent the first three years of his sentence at Barlinnie, a high security prison in Glasgow, where he was incarcerated in a purpose-built unit. Other than family members and lawyers, Nelson Mandela was one of his few visitors. Barlinnie has the reputation as ‘Scotland’s toughest jail’ and is also the country’s largest, holding more than 1,000 inmates.
The Libyan government had a small office in Glasgow, solely to support Al-Megrahi, and one of the five staff greeted me at the city’s airport. Next day we drove the short distance from my city centre hotel to Barlinnie, where memories of my previous prison visits came flooding back as I passed through security.
The prisoner was expecting me and had been briefed that I was representing Gaddafi directly. Al-Megrahi resembled a mild-mannered accountant but, if the Scottish justice system is to be trusted, he still remains the biggest mass killer in British history. He didn’t look like a murderer, but how do you tell? Of course, Libya always had a very different view and regarded him as a sacrificial lamb. The West needed a figure to blame and to be able to claim justice had been done; Gaddafi needed to find a way out of the mess of sanctions. Everyone benefited except Al-Megrahi and his family. He already had one failed appeal behind him, but when we first met was working on another. In the West there was growing unease about the safety of his conviction, and the expectation in Libya was that he would soon be coming home. Britain wanted rid of him but, unusually, was in disagreement with the US which was taking a much harder line.
My brief was simple: to check-up on Al-Megrahi and offer reassurance that he had not been forgotten. He was pleased with the new trainers and two tracksuits that I brought, and over the next two hours we spoke openly about his case and prospects for release. Al-Megrahi told me that he had not been coerced by Gaddafi to hand himself in for trial, but I couldn’t help wondering: how could he have refused? The pressure must have been unbearable because Libya’s future relations with the US and Britain, not to mention the entire issue of sanctions, were hanging on finding a solution to the Lockerbie problem.
It took years to find a compromise, which entailed handing over Al-Megrahi and another suspect for trial at a neutral venue, and agreeing to pay $2.7 billion compensation to the families of the 270 victims. The final piece of the jigsaw was a carefully worded statement. In it Libya ‘accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials’ but did not admit guilt for bringing down Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. It was often wrongly interpreted as a full admission, but anyone reading the words closely could see that was not the case. It was a fudge and, in my view, represented diplomacy at its most cynical. Libya bought peace with the West, which framed an innocent man.
When the Lockerbie verdict came through in January 2001, delivered by three Scottish judges, I was in Tripoli. The second suspect, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted and I remember Gaddafi telling me: ‘It’s what I expected. They could not lose face by releasing both men.’
The Colonel was determined to secure Al-Megrahi’s early release but, speaking to the prisoner, it was clear that he felt let down by his country. Al-Megrahi urged me to use my connections with the royal family of Jordan, handing me a letter addressed to King Abdullah in which he protested his innocence and pleaded to be transferred to a prison in any Arab territory until his innocence was proved. Here is an excerpt:
‘Your Majesty, I am an Arabic Libyan citizen who was unfairly convicted in the case of what is called Lockerbie on a false accusation based on the allegation that I was the suspect who bought the clothes from a storekeeper in Malta that were found in the remains of the suitcase bomb that was the cause for the plane crash over Lockerbie, and that I was [present] in Malta and that my colleague the second suspect who was acquitted by the court is the one who put the suitcase on the flight from Malta.
‘Your Majesty, I am a rational Muslim; I am not an extremist at all. I have a family and children who I do love more than any other thing. I swear to Allah the One, the Almighty, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, the Holy, the Bestower, the Alive, The Lord of Majesty and Bounty, I swear with all the beautiful tributes of Allah that I have never in my life bought any clothes from any store in Malta. I have never seen the clothes, nor the storekeeper in my life except during the trial when the witness presented his deposition. I have never dealt in my life with a suitcase that contains an [explosive device] at any airport in the world. My presence at Malta, if it were really the beginning of this crime, as claimed by the allegation, was merely to get some necessities.
‘Your Majesty, I beg you on behalf of my family and my children to raise my problem with those concerned in the United Kingdom and the United States of America to be transported to a prison in my homeland, or in your country or in any other Arabic country (as I consider any Arabic country as my own homeland) until the time when Allah Almighty will show my innocence to the entire world.
‘Your Majesty, I conclude my letter with this verse: By the name of Allah, the Merciful our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect, and raise for us one who will help.’
[to be continued]