Sunday 12 May 2024

Britain rejected secret deal to prosecute Lockerbie bomber in Ireland

[This is the headline over a report published in today's edition of The Sunday Times. It reads in part:]

Officials feared Irish courts were ‘soft on terrorism’ and more likely to acquit Libyan agent Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, previously classified papers reveal

Britain rejected a secret deal to put the Lockerbie bomber on trial in Dublin amid suggestions that Ireland was “soft on terrorism” and more likely to acquit him, it has emerged.

Previously classified diplomatic documents disclose that Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, expressed a willingness to hand over Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi to the Irish authorities.

The US and British governments maintained that al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was responsible for the bombing in December 1988 which led to the deaths of 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Scotland.

Gaddafi refused to hand him and fellow suspect Lamin Khalifa Fhimah to the authorities in Washington or Edinburgh, leading to years of sanctions and negotiations.

Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, met John Major, his British counterpart, in an attempt to broker a deal to end the stalemate.

However, Downing Street ruled the proposal was too risky after a senior diplomat claimed Irish courts were prone to making “inexplicable” decisions and raised fears that any hearing would be targeted by terrorists.

Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 when he seized power until he was overthrown and murdered in 2011, was outspoken in his support for the IRA. (...)

Previously unpublished documents from 1994, seen by The Sunday Times, have been opened and placed at the National Archives at Kew.

One, written by Sir Roderic Lyne, Major’s private secretary, confirms for the first time that a clandestine Anglo-Irish summit took place.

“During the tete-a-tete conversation between the prime minister and the taoiseach on May 26, the latter surfaced a Libyan proposal to hold the Lockerbie trial in Ireland,” he wrote.

A handwritten addendum states: “Ireland would be preferable to Canada. But given the Provisional IRA connection a trial there would be piquant to say the least!”

The following month John Dew, deputy head of mission at the UK embassy in Dublin, said the proposal posed unacceptable risks and raised particular concerns about the possibility of al-Megrahi being cleared by a sympathetic Irish court.

“This should not be taken lightly,” he wrote. “Irrespective of the independence of the Irish judiciary — and we all know of some strange rulings in the past — an acquittal would have major implications for Anglo-Irish relations.

“Our public opinion would inevitably interpret it as confirmation that Ireland was soft on terrorism.

“Her Majesty’s government would face serious questioning about why it had allowed the trial to take place in Ireland in view of inexplicable and unpredictable past rulings.” (...)

A separate memo written in the same month by UK Foreign Office civil servants said Reynolds’s suggestion should be taken seriously.

“A trial in Ireland would have some distinct attractions; it is a compatible legal system, it is nearby and it is not a realm or even in the Commonwealth,” it said.

“A number of Irish citizens were on board flight Pan Am 103. It seems that trial in Ireland might be acceptable, both to the Irish government and Libya.

“However, in view of the Provisional IRA connection it would be a more controversial venue than, for example, Australia.”

The British government ultimately rejected the Irish offer, along with an invitation from Nelson Mandela months later for a trial to take place in South Africa.

Eventually, the Libyan suspects went on trial in May 2000 in a Scottish court set up in a former US air base in the Netherlands.

After eight months Lord Cullen, the presiding judge, pronounced a guilty verdict on al-Megrahi. [RB: The presiding judge was actually Lord Sutherland. Lord Cullen presided over the 2001 appeal at Camp Zeist.]

He was sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish prison but released on compassionate grounds while terminally ill in 2009.

He maintained his innocence until his death in 2012 and his family are still fighting to have his conviction overturned.

Fhimah was found not guilty and returned to Libya.

More than three decades on, another man who is suspected of building the bomb that downed Pan Am flight 103 is being prosecuted in the US.

A court in Washington DC fixed a date of May 12, 2025, for the trial of Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, a Libyan citizen who maintains he is not guilty.

In 2018 relatives of Lockerbie victims told The Times that they had been repeatedly bugged by the security services after official documents suggested that they needed “careful watching”.

The Rev John Mosey, a church minister who lost his teenage daughter Helga in the atrocity, said that after speaking publicly his phone calls were often disrupted and documents relating to the bombing had gone missing from his computer.

Jim Swire, an English GP who lost his daughter Flora and became the public face of the campaign to secure an independent inquiry into the atrocity, reported similar intrusions and deliberately included false information in private correspondence, only for it to appear in the press days later.

The claims were corroborated by Hans K√∂chler, an Austrian academic appointed by the United Nations to be an independent observer at the Netherlands trial, who alleged that data had been taken from his computers.

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