Thursday, 26 August 2010

Debate over Lockerbie bomber release continues unabated

The prolonged flow of criticism of the Scottish and, by extension, the British government, over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Meghrahi continues unabated in the US. The cacophony is now spreading to London, where the right-wing press is clamouring for greater UK frankness in dealing with those members of the US Senate, principally by making available more official documents in the case relating to diagnoses of the state of al-Meghrahi's life expectancy in the period immediately prior to his release.

A second line of US interest is the BP connection to the release and repatriation of al-Meghrahi to Libya in 2009, when, it is alleged, the oil company used lobbying at the highest level. In effect, there have been recurrent claims that British policy was driven by commercial motives before all others.

The forthcoming mid-term elections in the US considerably enhance the response by the US to these twin difficulties with the UK: Lockerbie and BP.

Attempts by many candidates to seize the moral high ground in the energy sector, and in demonstration of high nationalist sentiments pitched against foreign interest, become keen areas of concern, especially when wedded to the problems faced by BP in the Gulf of Mexico in recent months.

President Barack Obama called for Libya not to make the anniversary of al-Meghrahi's release a public spectacle; a request also delivered by the British government. Libyan consideration on the matter was limited, but adequate to meet these requirements.

In a remarkable sign of frustration, al-Meghrahi claimed that his imprisonment in the UK had been a torment equal to a death by deprivation lasting through a thousand days of pain while incarcerated. He was critical of the British for keeping him in a prison as an inmate without special needs for his medical problems, although it is to be noted that he has kept in touch with fellow prisoners during the last year. The unofficial Libyan view is that the diplomatic initiatives taken in America can be ignored.

Certainly, there is little possibility that the Libyans will agree to return al-Meghrahi to the custody of the Scottish authorities as requested by important American politicians, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

For the Libyans, the case is closed and the low media treatment inside the country of the first anniversary of his release indicates that this is so. The Libyan authorities, however, have problems of their own with al-Meghrahi. He has, after all, unique knowledge of at least some part of the plot to down the airliner in 1988, but of which he has so far not revealed any details. It is to be supposed that the Libyan government would prefer this situation not to be changed. Much speculation by relatives of victims of the bombing as to the comparative role of al-Meghrahi tends to indicate their belief that more powerful individuals and institutions from Syria, Iran and the Palestinian organisations were involved.

In private, senior Libyans, who have been involved in foreign affairs and other external relations, are quite blunt in indicating that the pro-Israeli lobbies in Washington appear to be in support of the campaign for the re-imprisonment of al-Meghrahi. However, given the media attention generated over the al-Meghrahi issue in the US, it must be expected that the case will continue to cause irritation there for some time.

Four US members of Congress, Robert Menendez, Frank R Lautenberg, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand sent a letter on 20th August to the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (one time head of the Arab League), the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond and to Colonel Qadhafi. They communicated their concerns that the release of al-Meghrahi might be construed as politically improper and legally questionable.

The four did not take account of the circumstances at the time which were the end of the long engagement with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Colonel Qadhafi, and other concessions made by Libya as a means of ending US and UN sanctions. It is assumed by Libyan opposition spokesmen that the al-Meghrahi issue was, from the mid 1980s, an integral part of the settlement deal with Libya's return to the international community. Dr Ghanem has hinted strongly that the current US awakening of interest in the release of al-Meghrahi takes no account of the realities of the broader deal thrashed out by Libya at an earlier period.

In the meantime, congressional pressure being put on the UK and in particular, the Scottish government, is designed to exploit natural sentiment against an individual found guilty of mass murder of their fellow citizens. The British, for their part, have responded coldly to the US demands and are unlikely to do other than release documents pertinent to the case.

For more news and expert analysis about Libya, please see Libya Focus and Libya Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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