Lockerbie: what’s justice got to do with it?

International politics, not truth or fair play, has been the determining factor in the story of Pan Am flight 103.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Asked earlier this week about the possible release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from prison in Scotland, Susan Cohen was blunt: ‘Any letting out of Megrahi would be a disgrace. It makes me sick, and if there is a compassionate release then I think that is vile.’ (1)

Cohen’s daughter was one of 270 people killed when Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988. Her understandable reaction seems to be typical of many of the American families of the victims, who see the only man convicted of killing their relatives released after serving just eight years in prison. Despite the opposition of the US government and the American relatives, the Scottish government yesterday released al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, in order to allow him to die with his family in Libya.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of his conviction and his release, the interests of al-Meghrahi and the families of those who died have always been secondary to international politics.

Libya was made a pariah state in the 1980s by US and UK governments searching for a new enemy to fill the gap left by a rapidly thawing Cold War. After the bombing of a German nightclub frequented by US soldiers in April 1986, the US launched air strikes from bases in the UK on the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Tripoli, stating that this was in retaliation for Libya’s involvement in the nightclub attack. The Libyans claimed 40 people died, including the adopted daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In turn, the attack on Pan Am 103 two years later was alleged to be in retaliation for these air strikes.

However, Libya has always denied involvement in the attack. Other countries, most notably Iran, had plausible motives for wanting to bomb the plane. Whatever the truth, it was politically convenient for the Western powers to have Libya take the blame. In November 1991, indictments were issued against al-Megrahi, the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA), and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, the station manager for LAA in Malta, where the Pan Am 103 bomb was alleged to have been planted on a connecting flight. Sanctions were subsequently imposed on Libya for refusing to hand over the two accused.

Eventually, the men were turned over in November 1999 in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions. They were tried at a Scottish court sitting in a disused US air base, Camp Zeist, in the Netherlands. In January 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted of the killings, but his co-accused was acquitted. Al-Megrahi was then moved to Scotland to serve his sentence. In 2003, the Libyan government submitted a letter to the United Nations formally accepting ‘responsibility for the actions of its officials’ and compensation of $8million was paid to the families of each victim.

Case closed? Other comments made by Libyan officials have made clear that the decisions to hand over the two men to be tried, to pay compensation to the victims, and to accept responsibility were all pragmatic ones made simply to normalise relations with the Western powers. If this is true, al-Megrahi would appear to be the fall guy in a bout of international diplomacy.

Doubts over the Libyan connection remain. Hans Köchler, the UN’s observer at Camp Zeist, has repeatedly argued that al-Megrahi’s conviction was questionable. Writing in today’s Independent, Köchler believes al-Megrahi was convicted on ‘circumstantial evidence’, with key prosecution witnesses who ‘lacked credibility or had incentives to bear false witness against Megrahi’. Köchler notes: ‘We will probably never really know who caused the Lockerbie bombing.’ (2)

Köchler is not alone in his view of al-Megrahi’s conviction. In June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that it would allow al-Megrahi a fresh appeal, a decision supported in court in 2008. However, while al-Megrahi’s appeal was due to start in April this year, it was reported in January that moves were underway to transfer him to a prison in Libya. The suspicion has been raised, particularly by some of the British relatives of the Lockerbie victims, that this was an attempt to prevent evidence emerging that would point to the truth of what really happened to the Pan Am flight in 1988.

In the end, a different way out was found. Announcing the decision at Greenock prison yesterday, where al-Megrahi had been serving his sentence, Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill told reporters that he had been advised that the Libyan would die shortly from prostate cancer and that he was being released on compassionate grounds. ‘Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion’, said MacAskill. ‘But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.’

Given the opposition to the decision in the US, where most of the Pan Am 103 victims were from, MacAskill seemed keen to stress that he had ‘strictly followed due process’ – as if it wasn’t really his decision, that he was simply following procedures. MacAskill also took the opportunity to have a swipe at the UK government in London, which seems to have done everything in its power to dissociate itself from the decision.

In this sordid affair, the question of justice has been raised frequently. The American families feel a sense of injustice because al-Megrahi is free to share his last days with his loved ones, something their own relatives were denied. The British families, believing that Libya was used as a scapegoat, feel justice is still to be done because there will not be another hearing at which new evidence can be heard and tested. Al-Megrahi has always proclaimed his innocence and, while he is at least back in Libya, he will now never get his day in court.

But from a political point of view, the release of al-Megrahi in this way seems the best option. The US and UK governments avoid any awkward revelations at an appeal hearing. The Scottish government gets to assert itself as an independent force in world politics, even though it has no foreign policy authority as such, while appearing to be principled and humane. The Libyan government is presenting the release of al-Megrahi as a diplomatic triumph, as yesterday’s welcome party for him shows.

The driving force behind every episode in this case has been the interests of governments, particularly the major Western powers, not the lives of the people unfortunate enough to get caught up in their machinations. Sadly, justice has got nothing to do with it.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

(1) Lockerbie: release of bomber would be ‘vile’, says victim’s mother, Telegraph, 13 August 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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