The Megrahi Farce

August 25, 2009

Megrahi mounting the steps on his return to Libya

Megrahi mounting the steps on his return to Libya

The release of the Lockerbie “bomber” Adbulbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds has provoked an unprecedented wave of attacks upon the Scottish government. Apparently, compassion isn’t much in vogue across the Atlantic, from which the most venomous attacks have originated. Who’d have thought it?

Anybody who is anybody in Washington has been mobilized to criticise the decision of Scottish Justice Minister Kenny McCaskill to send Megrahi home to Libya, where he will spend his last days amongst his family. US Army Chief of Staff Michael Mullen, for example, has called it “obviously a political decision.” Joe Lieberman, ex running mate of Al Gore, has been more strident, charging that the release “takes our relations with Libya back to where they were for too long – a bad place.”

Both Mullen and Lieberman have been dispatched to the talk shows and news networks to spin the line that Britain/Scotland have caved into Libyan pressure, seeking lucrative oil deals. In exchange for the black gold – the release of what Lieberman calls a “mass murderer.” Or, as Democrat Senator Ben Cardin puts it, “We need to know what this oil deal is all about and whether there was a compromise to the judicial system for commercial gain.”

Hilary Clinton kicked off the round of calumnies when news of the probable realease seeped out. The Secretary of State actually phoned McCaskill last week, urging him to ensure that Megrahi spend the rest of his days in prison. When Megrahi finally landed in Tripoli, the U.S. government ratcheted up their outrage still further, pronouncing his welcome “outrageous” and “disgusting.”

Meanwhile, websites have sprung up urging patriotic Americans to boycott Scottish goods. According to boycottscotland.com, “The actions of the Scottish government are inexcusable. A man who is responsible for the mass murder of 270 innocent civilians must be held accountable for such a cold blooded and ruthless act. Freeing a terrorist in order to further ties with the tyrannical Libyan regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi and to further the commercial interests of British Petroleum in that region is repulsive and sickening.”

Mobilizing a deeply held tenet of American public life, the authors write that “Terrorists must never be shown compassion or mercy, for these people have no respect for human life,” a lesson which “The British, who ironically have themselves been victim to numerous acts of terrorism on their own soil, seem to have forgotten.”

Yet most commentators who criticize the “British” government for Megrahi’s release, fail to make the elementary distinction between Westminster and Edinburgh. Megrahi’s release, in the era of devolution, is McCaskill’s call, not Gordon Brown’s. It may be that Brown could have prevented Megrahi from returning to Libya, but not his release (as this letter to the Times suggests) but the actual release, the exercise of compassion, was not Brown’s to make.

In reality, the American position, such that it is, is contaminated by more than a whiff of hypocrisy. Aside from the long-term sheltering of Luis Posada Cariles, a man who was responsible for downing a civilian airliner carrying 73 people in 1976, the U.S. has also released a number of inmates of Guantanamo who then went on to either resume of initiate terrorist activities. Abdullah Mehsud, allegedly a Taliban commander in Pakistan’s Waziristan province, was released from Guantanamo in 2003, despite being captured in Afghanistan fighting against the U.S. After being deemed not to pose a security threat, he began attacking Chinese contractors, Pakistani troops and innocent civilians.

Apparently, if the U.S. agrees, some terrorists are fine to head home having signed a pledge to “renounce violence” (while, of course, many others are not, and wallow in judicial limbo where compassion is a decidedly scarce resource). Megrahi, however, has no such luxury. There are, it seems, terrorists and there are terrorists, hardly a startling revelation, but one which is absent from the media coverage of the Lockerbie case.

Another aspect of the Lockerbie case which is more or less absent is the widespread belief that Megrahi was not responsible for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in late 1987. It has become fashionable to mention that the release of Megrahi has been a windfall for “conspiracy theorists,” – and so it has. Even the BBC has carried sceptical articles, which list some of the weaknesses of the case against the Libyans. Reeval Anderson, for instance, writes about the utter unreliability of the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci.

Gauci, who picked Megrahi out of an identity parade as the buyer of clothes which were allegedly found in Scotland wrapped around parts of the Lockerbie bomb, had been shown a magazine picture of the Libyan before making his identification. He had also been wined and dined (including a hunting trip to Scotland) by investigators and “is believed to have been paid several million dollars by the Americans for his evidence.”

Yet Gauci’s “evidence” was the strongest element of the prosecution case against Megrahi, which is – when you delve into it – astonishingly weak. And this flimsy case is what the Americans are demanding be honored. In all likelihood, their passionate defence of the “rule of law” is yoked to a startling miscarriage of justice – and their bleating is intended more to pressure the British and Libyan governments (and to appear strong on terrorism) than to safeguard the sanctity of international jurisprudence.

The best investigation into Lockerbie was, it turns out, not carried out by the court which convened in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands in 2000 and convicted the Libyan Abdulbaset al-Megrahi and acquitted his codefendent Lamin Fhimah in 2001. For a credible narrative, we have to look to the private energies of victims’ relatives and the ex-Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who made Lockerbie something of a personal obsession, with admirable results. And we have to look too at the documentary produced by the late American filmmaker Allan Francovich (screened by Channel 4 in 1995 but never since, and not once in the US).

Francovich recorded interviews with an array of key witnesses – from volunteers on the ground in Lockerbie, to security staff of Pan Am, to Lebanese fighters, the Libyan codefendants, Maltese hotel workers and many ex-U.S. diplomatic or intelligence staff members. His case, which is built around the far more credible theory that Lockerbie was the product of Iranian or Syrian funded networks and was run out of Frankfurt, not Malta, has disappeared from the official radar.

As the U.S. prepared to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990, it executed a volte face on the Lockerbie issue. From pointing at Palestinian or Lebanese factions under Iranian or Syrian supervision, the focus switched to Libya. Syria and Iran, not coincidentally, were by then providing assistance to Operation Desert Storm. Libya, to the detriment of al-Megrahi (in all likelihood an innocent airline worker) was not.

In Francovich’s version, there is a deeper motive for the U.S. to suppress the Iranian-Hezbollah-Ahmed Jibril connection.

This is not just to do with the reasons behind the Iranian strategy, although this would make for some difficult moral calculus. Lockerbie was probably a reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf by a US warship in 1987. All the evidence suggests that the USS Vincennes could have avoided the shootdown, which cost 290 lives, and the Iranian government has ever since described it as an act of state terrorism. At the time, the U.S. was intervening actively on the side of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (including supplying the means to commit genocide against the Kurds). There would, one would hope, be some explaining to do regarding such a policy should the Lockerbie and Iran Air 655 cases ever be openly compared in an international forum.

But beyond that context, Francovich brings powerful evidence to the table suggesting that elements of U.S., Israeli, German and British intelligence were supervising the shipment of drugs from Lebanon via Frankfurt and London into the United States. The U.S. the story goes, was engaged in a drugs for hostages swap – and was industriously enlisting couriers from Lebanon for the purpose. One of those killed on Flight 103, a young man named Khalid Jafaar, is linked by the film to Israeli intelligence handlers and the CIA not, it should be noted, that Francovich accuses either country of causing the Lockerbie bomb. His case is that the Ahmed Jibril organization (an offshoot of the PLO) infiltrated the drug route, using the lax inspection of drug cargoes as a means of smuggling the bomb aboard. The U.S., he argues, had at the least been duped into actively conveying the bomb onto the plane.

This is, of course, a conspiracy theory. In the absence of a real inquiry into the causes of the Lockerbie tragedy, it could not be otherwise. Yet from the start, it seems that the investigation was designed to “fail.” It was entrusted to a man known for his anti-Libyan fanaticism (Vincent Cannistraro, interviewed revealingly by Francovich), and the evidence was heavily manipulated to produce the outcomes desired. Yet the process which led to those outcomes has stamped the official narrative with an aura of legitimacy which it simply does not deserve.

Unfortunately, the release of Megrahi was preceded by his “decision” to drop a second appeal, presumably knowing that the alternative was a “compassionate release.” A full enquiry is unlikely given the expense involved and the controversy that it will engender on both sides of the Atlantic, although several relatives of Lockerbie victims are campaigning for one.

In the absence of a credible threat that the perpetrators will be held to account, and that the true role of western intelligence agencies will be exposed, the coast is clear for American patriots to attack the Scottish executive for doing what, in the end, was not such an evil thing.

In the grand scheme of things, the release of one dying man is nothing to scream about. Critics of Libya may point more productively towards Qaddafi’s record of killing and imprisoning dissidents, of cracking down on immigrants seeking transit across the Mediterranean (with the full backing of the European Union), of helping to propel the world further towards climate oblivion through Libya’s oil bounty and, perhaps, his role in Darfur, and Chad, where Libya has been backing insurgent factions on and off for years.

But, of course, none of this is as black and white, as easy to fit into the framework of good and evil as a dying man who is probably not a terrorist, yet whose fate it has been to have carried public responsibility for the death of 270 innocent people.

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