x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Libyans insist Megrahi is innocent

Qadafi's son admits public reception in Tripoli for the Lockerbie bombing convict might have been a mistake but says: "Libya is a promising, rich market and so let's talk about the future."

The release of the Lockerbie bomber and celebrations on his return to Tripoli provoked international criticism but Libya sees a bright future in its trade links with the UK. "Abdelbasset Ali al Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence agent and only person to be convicted of the 1988 Pan Am airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, was given a hero's welcome in Libya after being released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds earlier this month," Hamida Ghafour wrote in The National. "The British government hoped al Megrahi, who is suffering from cancer and has been given three months to live, would arrive quietly and the business of doing business with Qadafi would continue." While reports suggest that the decision to release Mr Megrahi was linked to the UK's trade links with Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al Islam al Qadafi, insisted that no such connection should be inferred. "You have your bargaining and your oil and commerce and you have talks and do deals. We do it with the UK, with Russia, with America, with China, with everyone. There is nothing wrong with that. This is politics. But the release and bringing Mr Megrahi back home was a different story," Mr Qadafi told the Scottish newspaper The Herald. The Independent said: "Britain's trade with Libya could soar following the release of the Lockerbie bomber, as the North African country embarks on a massive building programme. "In the first five months of 2009, UK exports to Libya were already up by 48 per cent to £165.4m on the same period in 2008, while UK imports from Libya - mainly oil - were up 48.5 per cent on 2008 at £966m, a rise of 66 per cent on 2007." The Observer noted: "Libya has been courted by Prince Charles, government ministers and Foreign Office mandarins on a dozen or more occasions in pursuit of lucrative oil and gas contracts. "Documents obtained by The Observer show ministers and senior civil servants met Shell to discuss the company's oil interests in Libya on at least 11 occasions and perhaps as many as 26 times in less than four years. "Foreign secretary David Miliband, the former Labour leader Lord Kinnock and even Prince Charles were involved in the meetings with Shell about its business in Libya or Egypt." In an editorial, The Boston Globe said: "Even when viewed purely as an act of misguided compassion, Scotland's release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was a denial of justice and a hurtful blow to the families and friends of his 270 victims. But if it is true, as well-placed British and Libyan figures have been saying, that the release resulted from British government fears that Libyan dictator Muammar Qadafi might block lucrative oil and defense contracts if Megrahi died in a Scottish prison, then his repatriation to a hero's welcome in Libya becomes a sordid acquiescence to high-stakes blackmail." In The New Yorker, Andrew Solomon pointed out that Libyan scepticism about the soundness of the conviction of Mr Megrahi is not without reason. "The fact that Megrahi was convicted on thin evidence has been noted by many who were close to the original trial and the hastily assembled first appeal. Robert Black, the Scottish lawyer who was the architect of the original trial, described it as 'the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for a hundred years.' Professor Hans Köchler, appointed by Kofi Annan to observe the trial for the UN, called the second court's decision a 'spectacular miscarriage of justice.' One of the primary witnesses - Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as having bought the clothes that investigators believed were wrapped around the bomb - has been largely discredited, and the assertion that the Swiss Mebo MST-13 timer used to detonate the bomb had been sold only to the Libyans has proved false. The original CIA inquiries focussed on Tehran, where there had been calls for vengeance after a US Navy cruiser accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane. Robert Baer, who worked on the case for the CIA, has said that Iran was responsible, and [the CBS News programme] 60 Minutes put forward, in 2000, the possibility that Tehran hired a Syria-based Palestinian organisation to stage the attack. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review, which examined all this material, determined there was evidence for a second appeal, and that appeal was underway when doctors said Megrahi had only three months to live. Conspiracy theories abound: that the Libyans were fingered in the first place to avoid a confrontation with Iran at a delicate time; that this political jig would have become broadly known if Megrahi hadn't dropped the appeal in exchange for compassionate release; that Scotland released Megrahi in order to gain access to Libyan oil; and many others too baroque to rehearse here. Any of these may be true, but they would take many years to unfurl. While the conviction of Megrahi may prove to be right, no one could describe it as anywhere near watertight, and reasonable doubt does remain a standard for legal innocence." The Independent reported: "Megrahi left Scotland aboard an Afriqiyah Airbus 300 often used by Colonel Qadafi. In his statement Megrahi said his treatment at the hands of the Scottish legal system had been 'nothing short of a disgrace'. He said he was deeply relieved to be going home and thanked prison and medical staff for the kindness shown him. He said he bore no ill will to the Scottish people and shared the frustration of victims' relatives that he had been forced to drop his appeal. "But describing his ordeal he said his incarceration in an alien culture separated from his family had proved a 'profound dislocation'. He said: 'I cannot find words in my language or yours that give proper expression to the desolation I have felt. This horrible ordeal is not ended by my return to Libya. " 'It may never end for me until I die. Perhaps the only liberation for me will be death. And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do. " 'The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction,' Megrahi continued. 'I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted.'" Saif al Islam al Qadafi, in an interview with The Herald said the widely reported public welcoming for Mr Megrahi was not orchestrated by the Libyan government. "Mr al Qadafi explains that the Libyans had agreed not to mention the release until Megrahi was back on home soil, and says they purposefully chose not to give him an official welcome. Instead, he says the fact the Scottish authorities allowed the media to cover his departure from Glasgow meant that any Libyan watching TV would have known that he would be arriving in four hours. " 'There was no official reception, no ministers, no officials to greet him,' he explains. 'There were just ordinary people there and his family. They knew he was coming because of the coverage in Glasgow. Everyone knew from Sky and the BBC that he was going to land in Tripoli in four hours. " 'We got stuck for two hours in the plane because we had not expected this and there were no police or security to organise the crowd at the airport. We had to wait for them to organise the crowd. " 'All the journalists complained that the Libyan authorities did not allow access to the airport, but this was a pre-condition. But in Glasgow there were journalists everywhere and helicopters. The Scottish authorities had requested that he be allowed to walk up on his own to the plane in Glasgow. " 'There was no official celebration, no guards of honour, no fireworks and no parade. We could have arranged a much better reception. On the same day in Tripoli, tens of thousands of young people were celebrating the day of the youth in Green Square in Tripoli. We could have taken them. This is evidence in our favour that we did not prepare to receive him as a hero. We respected the request of the Scottish and British governments to keep it low-key.'"

pwoodward@thenational.ae