THE release of Abdel Basset al-Meghrahi, the Libyan accused of having a hand in the blowing up of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, has evoked strong reactions from the United States and from the families of many of those killed. Most of the passengers who perished over Lockerbie were U.S. citizens. Meghrahi was released on August 19 on compassionate grounds by the Scottish authorities as he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He has at the most only a few more months to live.
Meghrahi was given a heros welcome in Libya when the VIP plane, provided by the Libyan government, brought him back home. On hand to receive him was Seif al-Islam, son of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. Gaddafi himself had a meeting with Meghrahi and his family in his official residence. This high-profile reception accorded to Meghrahi, the former head of security of the Libyan Arab airlines, unleashed a wave of protests, starting from the White House.
Gaddafi, in an interview to the Libyan news agency Jana, claimed that the British government was in the loop in the decision to release Meghrahi. He said the release of Meghrahi was in the interest of relations between the two countries. The Libyan leader dismissed criticism about the welcome accorded to Meghrahi. He pointed out to the welcome accorded to the Bulgarian nurses convicted by a Libyan court for their role in infecting Libyan schoolchildren with the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) virus. The nurses were released to serve out their terms in a Bulgarian prison. On arrival in Bulgaria, they were received by the countrys President and Prime Minister and immediately pardoned. Why didnt we hear these objections on the exoneration of this condemned team? Gaddafi asked.
Seif al-Islam was even more specific about the circumstances leading to the release of Meghrahi. He said Meghrahis situation had been discussed in detail with Tony Blair in 2007. Blair, the British Prime Minister at the time, was on a state visit to Libya. During the course of the visit, he signed a slew of lucrative oil and gas agreements with the Libyan government.
The Libyan government and people had, from the outset, considered Meghrahi to be a scapegoat for a crime he never committed. The West blamed Libya for the Lockerbie bombing in 1990 and imposed draconian sanctions on the country. Many analysts also were of the opinion that the Lockerbie terrorist act was in retaliation to many acts of state terrorism committed by the U.S. For instance, in 1986, U.S. planes targeted the residence of the Libyan leader in Tripoli. The attack killed his adopted daughter, aged two, and 30 other people.
Libya had been vigorously denying over the years that its secret service was in any way involved in the bombing. But with sanctions having a negative impact on the economy and the new political realities the country had to face after the end of the Cold War, it decided to end the impasse.
In 2000, the Libyan government, after years of behind-the-scenes negotiations, agreed to pay $2.7 billion as compensation to the families of the victims of the bombing. The government also agreed to hand over the two suspects, Meghrahi and another Libyan official, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, who were wanted by Western intelligence agencies for trial.
The trial, presided over by a panel of Scottish judges, was held in the Netherlands in 2001. Fhimah, who was the station manager for Libyan Arab airlines in Malta, was acquitted while Meghrahi was sentenced to life on the basis of an incomplete fingerprint found on bombing-related documents provided by the Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO).
When the trial was about to start the SCRO received a slap on its wrists: fingerprint experts from the U.S. and Europe exposed its conclusions in another high-profile case. The SCRO had charged a Scottish police officer with complicity in a murder, claiming that her fingerprint matched a blood stained one on the door of the murder victim. The police officer won damages of 750,000 from the Scottish government.
Hans Kochler, the United Nations observer at the Lockerbie trial, has been of the view that Meghrahi was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Writing in The Independent, Kochler says that the prosecution relied on witnesses who lacked credibility or had incentives to bear false witnesses against Meghrahi. He concludes his article by observing: We will probably never really know who caused the Lockerbie bombing. Little evidence was provided by the prosecution to show that Meghrahi had planted a suitcase bomb on a feeder flight in Malta, which was then twice transferred on to flights from Frankfurt to Heathrow.
In June 2007, in a move that added credence to those who doubted the verdict by the Scottish judges, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that it would allow Meghrahi to lodge a fresh appeal to prove his innocence. A British journalist, Hugh Miles, wrote in the London Review of Books in a 2007 article that many lawyers, politicians, diplomats and relatives of Lockerbie victims now believe that the former Libyan intelligence official is innocent. Miles quoted the eminent professor emeritus of Scottish law at Edinburgh University, Robert Black, as saying: No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.
During the original trial, defence lawyers had claimed that the Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, the only man to identify Meghrahi as the suspect, was paid millions of dollars by the Central Intelligence Agency. Gauci is now settled comfortably in Australia.
Gauci had admitted that shortly before identifying Meghrahi he had seen the picture of the accused in a magazine article on the Lockerbie bombing. Gauci initially failed to identify Meghrahi and told the judge that the suspect was six feet or more in height and was over 50 years of age. Meghrahi is 58 and was 36 in 1988. According to reports in the British media, an estimated 600 pages of evidence, much of which could prove Meghrahis innocence, is being withheld from the public.
The re-trial eventually did not happen. Meghrahis galloping cancer was said to be the cause. But some people are of the view that the authorities did not want the case to proceed, fearing that more fact that would embarrass the U.S. and the United Kingdom might tumble out. Meghrahi, in a statement issued before being released, said that both he and his team of lawyers were disappointed by the abandonment of his trial.
Many people, including the relatives of those who died in and over Lockerbie are, I know, upset that my appeal has come to an end; that nothing more can be done about the circumstances relating to the Lockerbie bombing. I share their frustration. I had most to gain and nothing to lose about the whole truth coming out until my diagnosis for cancer, wrote Meghrahi in his farewell letter to the people of Scotland. Criticism of the Scottish governments decision has been generally muted in Western capitals.
Only the Barack Obama administration has been strident in its criticism. The adverse comments from Washington have been mostly confined to the welcome accorded to Meghrahi in his homeland. The rhetoric from Washington, it seems, is only for public consumption. U.S. companies have also inked big deals in Libya after Washington lifted economic sanctions and restored diplomatic ties in 2003.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had made a visit to Libya in 2008. It was the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since the visit of John Foster Dulles in 1953. At the time Libya was a monarchy and the U.S. had military bases in the country. After the overthrow of the monarchy in a coup led by the then Captain Gaddafi 40 years ago, the Americans were booted out of their bases.
In the past one decade, however, Gaddafi has managed to get back into the good books of the West. Libya was among the first countries to support the George W. Bush administrations so-called global war on terror. With great fanfare Libya also gave up its fledgling nuclear programme. Gaddafi was quickly touted as a role model by the West for other countries having similar aspirations. Libyas relations with the major European powers have been normalised. Gaddafi has made high-profile visits to London, Paris and Rome.
In 2008, during Gaddafis visit to the country, the government of Italy went to the extent of agreeing to pay $5 billion as compensation for the 30-year occupation of Libya, which ended in 1943. To Gaddafis credit, it was the first time a colonial power was forced to pay compensation. Many other African governments are planning to follow suit and ask their former colonial masters for reparations. In lieu of compensation, Italian firms have, of course, signed lucrative contracts in Libya.