Monday, 23 August 2010

Libya and the Lockerbie bomber

Last week I was supposed to appear on the BBC’s Breakfast television programme as a talking head about the first anniversary of the return of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi. In the end the news priorities changed and I was stood down because the BBC was not going to cover the story in the same level of detail. However, having had to think about what I was going to say, I came to some interesting conclusions.

The frail and ailing Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal cancer, was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds a year ago, and was expected to quietly return to Libya and die within three months. However, despite warnings from the US and the UK governments that his return should be kept as low key as possible, he was met at Tripoli’s second airport by what appeared to be celebrating crowds of youths waving Libyan and Scottish flags. In a scene replayed thousands of times on TV during the past year Megrahi was greeted, very warmly, on the aircraft steps by the Leader’s son and possible heir Saif al-Islam Qadhafi. He was then helped into a waiting car by his immediate family and was whisked away into the night.

A year later and Megrahi is still alive although he has looked very frail on the couple of occasions when being filmed in hospital. His survival for much longer than the cancer experts had predicted has particularly angered the families of the US Lockerbie victims who, despite accepting millions of dollars in compensation from Libya, have always been far more vociferous than the families of the other victims. If his survival were not bad enough the current hysteria in the US against BP, following the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, has led some lawmakers plus conservative press and pundits to mount a witch-hunt against all things British.

A couple of days ago a group of US senators has said that a "cloud of suspicion" still hangs over al-Megrahi’s release. Senator Robert Menendez called on Britain and Scotland to answer a number of "outstanding questions" over the case. He said that there was "anger and frustration" in the US that Megrahi was "still very much alive and very much free".

They speculate that Megrahi was released following pressure on the Scottish government from both the British government of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a commercial lobby led by BP. In return for his release BP was allegedly rewarded with a vast onshore and offshore oil exploration contract – including the largest drilling campaign in its history – which, by an unfortunate coincidence, it is just about to start at the same time as the furore over both Megrahi and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

I believe the reality is very different. In order to understand it, however, it is necessary to remember a little of Libya’s history and then re-examine the facts.

For hundreds of years Libya was a North African backwater thousands of miles from the centres of Arab civilisation and, even by Libyan standards, the place where Colonel Qadhafi comes from was even more insignificant. Also, before oil was discovered in the late 1950s, Libya was among the poorest countries in the world and its chief export was exparto grass which is used for making high-quality paper. In the 41 years since he came to power on 1st September 1969 – which currently makes him the world’s longest serving non-royal leader – Qadhafi has therefore always sought to put Libya, and particularly himself, on centre stage where both will be taken seriously.

During the majority of his rule this was done by putting Libya at the heart of the radical and often violent struggle against Israel and Western colonialism. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Libya financed, supported, and provided refuge for both genuine liberation groups as well as others who were prepared to use terrorism to try and achieve their aims. At the same time Qadhafi’s young revolutionaries purged Libya of any possible opponents and mounted a campaign to eliminate those living abroad who were referred to as stray dogs. During this long black period the regime was responsible for numerous heinous crimes against both its domestic and foreign enemies and, even today, it still paying for the last few of these crimes or skeletons in the cupboard which continue to pop up decades later.

Lockerbie was one of the last and most serious of these skeletons and it eventually led to over a decade of US and UN sanctions which isolated Libya and crippled its economy. There has been a lot of speculation about whether of not Libya, and particularly Megrahi, was responsible for the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21st December 1988. Initially it was assumed that it was an Iranian inspired and financed, and Palestinian masterminded, attack which was in retaliation for the shooting down by the US Navy of Iran Air’s Flight 665 over the Gulf on 3rd July 1988 which resulted in the death of 290 passengers and crew and for which the US never apologised and only paid US$131 million in compensation.

The evidence then appeared to switch to Libya and, as we all know, Megrahi was eventually handed over in April 1999, tried and convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and served over ten years in jail before his release and return to Libya. The latter had also paid US$2,700 million, or US$10 million per family, in compensation and US sanctions had been eventually lifted in October 2008 over five years after UN sanctions were lifted.

Whether or not Libya, and specifically Megrahi, was responsible for Lockerbie – and there are still many including some of the families of the Lockerbie victims who still dispute it - is immaterial because Megrahi was found guilty. It would not surprise me if Libya was, indeed, responsible and that it joined a plot that had been pre-planned and hatched by others but the Libyans were the ones who got caught.

This brings us to August 2009 when Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government and returned to Libya. The majority of Libyans do not believe that he was personally responsible for Lockerbie and think that he was the one who took the wrap for something that others, possibly but not definitely other Libyans, had done. They felt that the nomads’ traditional system of justice - whereby the victim’s family or tribe agree to accept blood money from the perpetrator thereby cancelling out a serious wrong against them – had settled the issue with the payment of US$2.7 billion in compensation. At the same time Megrahi comes from a powerful tribe and it was therefore important for the Libyan regime to win his release.

Another incentive for the Libyans was the forthcoming 40th anniversary of the 1969 coup which brought Qadhafi to power. Tripoli wanted everything to be perfect for the big day and Megrahi’s return was the icing on the cake and it was therefore very fortuitous that he was released a few weeks before the 1st September 2009 and in time for the celebrations.

This brings us to the final points of a). whether the medical evidence warranted his release, and b) whether the British government and BP pressured the Scottish government to do so.

At the time a number of highly qualified, experienced, and professional cancer specialists believed that Megrahi was unlikely to survive for more than three months. As so often happens, and as I know from my family’s personal experience, attempts at predicting cancer victims’ life expectance is very difficult and in Megrahi’s case they were wrong and he has survived for over a year. There is, however, no question that he will die of cancer in the near future whether that is this year or next. Talk of US pressure on Scotland to recall him to prison in Scotland is distasteful and fortunately is very unlikely to success.

Secondly, anyone who knows anything about British politics, will know of the tribal hatred between the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Labour Party in Scotland; particularly when it was led by a fellow Scot, Gordon Brown. They would know that the SNP would never ever do anything to assist the Labour government and would do everything possible to oppose it. The idea of the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, caving in to pressure from Gordon Brown is frankly laughable. Similarly, although BP undoubtedly had excellent relations with the UK government and certainly made its concerns known, it is inconceivable that it could have influenced the Scottish government into releasing Megrahi. BP may be the current bogey-man in the US but those claiming a conspiracy between BP, London and Tripoli are frankly barking up the wrong tree.

The timing of Megrahi’s release was undoubtedly fortuitous for the Libyan regime, which was about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, and for BP whose exploration deal would probably have been delayed by a few more months. All parties also knew that, if he had died in a Scottish prison, the UK’s political and economic relationship with Libya – which had been nurtured since 2003 when Tripoli was persuaded by London to end its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme - would have deteriorated sharply.

The reality, however, is that, rightly or wrongly, Megrahi was released solely on compassionate grounds in the genuine belief that he would not survive more than a few months. It is time to end the Lockerbie affair, let Megrahi die in peace, and begin to recognise the considerable progress that Libya has been made since 2003 and encourage it to continue its gradual, albeit hesitant, political and economic reforms still further. A little more carrot and a lot less stick would probably work.

Written by Menas Associates MD Charles Gurdon.

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

© 2010 Menas Associates

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