Confusing signals

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

This August 31 photograph taken from the Channel Four news website shows Abdel Basset al-Meghrahi in his hospital bed in Tripoli.-AFP

This August 31 photograph taken from the Channel Four news website shows Abdel Basset al-Meghrahi in his hospital bed in Tripoli.-AFP

THERE is a huge controversy brewing in the United Kingdom and the United States over the Scottish decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Meghrahi from a prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds. He had spent 10 years in Scottish prisons, first in Berlinnie (near Glasgow) and later in the Greenock prison (western Scotland), from where he was flown back to his native Libya on August 20. Contrary to an earlier promise, there was a sizeable public reception to greet him at the Tripoli airport. This was followed by a widely publicised meeting with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan supremo, with the two seen embracing each other. It is not wholly insignificant to mention here that Meghrahis charge-sheet in court referred to him as a Libyan intelligence operative, although, according to another report, Meghrahi was just a security officer with Libyan Arab Airlines.

Of the 270 persons (including 11 people on the ground) killed in the 1988 explosion, 189 were U.S. nationals. Naturally, anger over the Scottish action is most strident in the U.S., where all those who matter in the administration, President Barack Obama downwards, described the reprieve to Meghrahi as shocking and unacceptable and that it could send a wrong signal to terrorists the world over. In a surprise move, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller went public to express his outrage.

Having been associated with the investigation of the explosion right from the beginning, as an Assistant Attorney-General, he charged the Scottish government with utter insensitivity to the feelings of victims. This was an unusual public demonstration of emotions on the part of a senior civil servant, but definitely not one you can take exception to, given the enormity of the crime that shook the world for its utter poignancy.

The families of those who lost their lives in the horrific case of aviation sabotage also spoke up in extreme anguish. In contrast, the voices endorsing Meghrahis release have been very few. Their position is that the delivery of justice cannot be blind and that it has to be tempered with mercy. They say here is an accused who, according to expert medical prognosis, is dying, and it is but fair that he is allowed to spend his last days with his immediate family. The decision will, nevertheless, be debated for a long time to come, because Scotlands Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskills reference to compassion as his governments sole motivation has not cut much ice with many.

The hypersensitive British press, apart from being critical of MacAskills defence of his controversial decision, has lambasted the British government for alleged complicity with Gaddafi. It has refused to buy the British argument that the decision was well within the devolved authority enjoyed by Scotland, and there was, therefore, no need for the latter to consult Westminster.

Interestingly, there is no unambiguous statement as yet by any official spokesman whether or not the British government was consulted before Meghrahis release. Altogether, it is a field day for rumours and insinuations. It will remain so, unless the British government releases all relevant documents in response to a growing public outrage.

A few fundamental facts will help the reader appreciate the background to the nearly unprecedented Scottish action. Pan Am 103 left Londons Heathrow Airport on the evening of December 21, 1988, on its less than eight-hour flight to New York. After about 35 minutes, when the aircraft was above the Scottish village of Lockerbie, a powerful explosion broke the aircraft into pieces; all the 259 persons (including the crew) on board died. In addition, 11 villagers on the ground were killed when pieces of the aircraft came down.

Investigation by the Scottish Police, assisted by an FBI Task Force, led to the conclusion that the powerful explosive smuggled into the flight was stitched into the cloth that lined a suitcase, which was taken surreptitiously into an aircraft in Malta bound for Frankfurt. A tag was fastened to the bag so that it found its way first from Frankfurt to London, and ultimately on to New York on a Pan Am flight. This was an extremely dexterous operation, obviously with the connivance of some airport and airlines staff.

Months after the investigation had begun, the police found fragments of the time device of the explosive in a piece of cloth that had markings traceable to Malta.

Enquiries in that island led on to one Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper, who, during an identification parade held by the police, identified Meghrahi as the man who had bought some clothing in his outlet. (Meghrahi was reportedly visiting Malta in his capacity as the security officer of Libyan Arab Airlines. But then there is the damaging charge that Gauci had seen Meghrahis picture in a magazine before the identification parade, and that he had been heavily bribed to implicate Meghrahi.) In the final analysis, the Lockerbie investigators were relying purely on circumstantial evidence, which the defence castigated as too weak to sustain a conviction.

The Lockerbie trial was held in Camp Zeist, close to Utrecht in central Netherlands. A U.S. military base until 1994, this was agreed upon as a neutral venue to accommodate Libya, which alleged that no fair trial was possible in Scotland. At the end of the momentous trial in 2001, Meghrahi was convicted for life. (There is no capital punishment in Scottish law.) His co-accused Lamin Khalifa Fhimah was, however, acquitted because of lack of evidence. Meghrahis first appeal was rejected in 2001. He was allowed to appeal again in 2007 by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which apparently found some inconsistencies in the evidence let in by the prosecution.

It was at this stage that Meghrahi was diagnosed as having advanced prostate cancer. Libyan pressure on Scotland intensified thereafter, resulting in Meghrahis ultimate release in August. Scotland says that there was a danger in Meghrahi being allowed to die in a Scottish prison. The hint was that, in such an eventuality, Scotland could become a terrorist target, a fear difficult to dismiss as imaginary and hypothetical. Also, according to Scotland, there was no shady quid pro quo here, and that Meghrahi had been clearly kept out of a prisoner exchange agreement, which was being negotiated by Libya and Great Britain in 2007.

From the point of view of criminal justice theorists and practitioners, the Meghrahi episode throws up a number of lively issues. First is the quality of evidence that is necessary to sustain a life sentence. From the material made available until now to the lay public, the prosecution here depended wholly on circumstantial evidence. Meghrahi has maintained right through that he is innocent. The fact that he was allowed a second appeal the first was thrown out by court a year after his conviction by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission goes in his favour. Interestingly, Meghrahi is said to be working on a book that will present his case convincingly.

Assuming that Meghrahi is in fact guilty, the question is: did he deserve any compassion at all? The role of mercy is something that has been inconclusively debated for ages in criminal justice administration, analogous to the unresolved dispute about the ethics of capital punishment.

Interestingly, Ronnie Biggs (80), the accused in the Great Train Robbery of 1963, was recently released by the U.K. Home Secretary after experts opined that his lung ailment was incurable and he could be expected to die any time. Biggs remains under treatment in a London hospital, and the only difference the government reprieve has brought about is that he is no longer guarded by policemen near his bed.

The latest report on Meghrahi is also the same. As I write this column, the Libyan (whose links with Gaddafi and the countrys intelligence outfits still remain mysterious) is said to be in a serious condition at a Tripoli hospital. If he does not survive for long, it will take the wind out of the sails of Scotlands detractors.

Whatever happens in the next few months, the suspicion that there was a deal between Libya and the U.K. over his release will remain. Almost every day there is a report in the U.K. press that speaks of this nexus with great authority, drawing heavily on secret correspondence.

The allegation is that Libya has enormous oil and gas reserves to offer for the exploitation of U.K. companies, which has weighed heavily in the mind of the British government. Also, the oil giant, British Gas, is said to have successfully exerted tremendous pressure on the U.K. government to eliminate all irritants in the way of improved relations with Libya. And Meghrahis detention in Scotland was one such irritant.

Although British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Cabinet colleagues have been quick to deny this, Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Gaddafi and a colourful personality, has more than hinted that there was indeed a connection. It is this suspicion of an unholy agreement between the U.K. and Libya that should be of great concern to those who are squarely opposed to terrorism.

That terrorists or suspects can be let off in order to promote the commercial interests of a nation is something that is difficult to swallow. What kind of a signal do such deals send out to terrorist groups? Does not Meghrahis release halfway through his sentence dilute the international resolve to fight terrorism? These are questions that need a definitive answer, if only we are to tackle terrorism with an iron hand.

Ironically, these issues resonate with the revived controversy in India over Kandahar, especially on how much the then Home Minister L.K. Advani knew or did not know, at least about the External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh going personally to hand over prisoners in our jails to Pakistani terrorists who had hijacked a commercial aircraft in December 1999 to the Afghan city.

In the final analysis, whether you like it or not, extreme flexibility and pragmatism seem inescapably fused into the handling of tricky situations generated by terrorist groups. There is no getting away from this tragic situation.

This is why anyone who may assert that the release of Meghrahi by Scotland or the Pakistani terrorists from our jails 10 years ago by the Indian government was indefensible can be said to be out of sync with the harsh realities of the modern environs in which we live.

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