Oil talks, and the dying scapegoat walks
The UK and the US falsely blamed a Libyan for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. But now that it wants Libyan oil, Britain is letting him die at home, writes Alex Mitchell in LondonAbdelbasset Ali al Megrahi, the Libyan accused of the Pan Am airline bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1988 was allowed to return home on 20 August on "compassionate grounds" because he is dying of prostate cancer.
At least, that is the story put out by the British and Libyan governments and articulated by Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, a member of the ruling Scottish National Party.
In fact, Megrahi's release from his life sentence after serving just eight years forms part of a wider political and business agreement between London and Tripoli. It was first hatched in March 2004 when former prime minister Tony Blair ended Gaddafi's international isolation and met the Libyan leader in his ceremonial tent where they exchanged handshakes and embraces.
Blair and the Arab leader who had been demonised as "the world's No.1 terrorist" and "the Hitler of North Africa" established a diplomatic framework for Megrahi's release and much more.
Putting aside Megrahi's conviction for the murder of the 270 passengers and crew of Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded in mid-air, Blair restored diplomatic relations with Gaddafi at the behest of Britain's industrial and investment classes who were pushing hard for access to some of Libya's stupendous oil revenue. In the wake of his career-defining decision to join president George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, the embattled Blair also wanted to show he wasn't "anti-Arab" and to buy some peace from his restive backbenchers. Indeed, Blair's Libyan play seems like a poor imitation of president Richard Nixon's sudden visit to Beijing in 1971 to court Chairman Mao (followed by a less publicised visit to Moscow).
In return for his countryman's freedom, Gaddafi pledged to favour British companies seeking development contracts in Libya. As an act of good faith, he gave permission for British Petroleum to undertake a $600 million expansion in the Libyan oilfields.
Initially, it was intended that Megrahi would be returned to his homeland to serve out the remainder of his life sentence. This was the humanitarian option. Blair's Scottish successor as PM, Gordon Brown, was implementing this plan when the global economic meltdown hit the UK banking system. Ironically, one of the two banks Brown rescued by nationalisation was the technically bankrupt Royal Bank of Scotland.
Sensing that his oil-rich "Jamahiriya" ("state of the masses") now had the upper hand, Gaddafi impatiently demanded that Megrahi be returned without delay. Domestically, Gaddafi had been grandstanding about Megrahi's early release and some of his followers were starting to suspect that this was another case of the colonel's wildly inflated rhetoric.
During a private meeting at the sidelines of the G8 summit in Rome in July, Gaddafi and Gordon Brown stitched together the elements of the final deal: Megrahi would drop his appeal against his conviction and Scotland's Justice Minister (not the UK's) would play the "compassionate grounds" card.
Abandoning the appeal was critical because it means that Megrahi's original conviction stands. It has saved Britain's criminal justice system of yet another massive embarrassment if the appeal judges found that Megrahi had been wrongfully convicted.
And that, of course, is a view widely held by legal experts, many journalists who covered the original trial, academics, politicians and even some relatives of the Lockerbie victims. The British legal system has a notorious record for mishandling terrorist crimes — who can forget the IRA cases in the 1970s and 1980s when those wrongly convicted for the Birmingham and Guildford bombings were eventually set free?
Lord Mandelson, New Labour's so-called "Dark Lord", worked on the choreography of Megrahi's release during his holiday on the Greek island of Corfu in August when he was house guest of one of the Rothschilds. He secretly met Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, the likely heir to his 67-year-old father, who later accompanied Megrahi on his flight from Scotland to Tripoli's Mitiga airport upon his release last Thursday.
Megrahi's statement to the media reflected his conflicted attitude to his rescue:
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 I did not do.
The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction. 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 now never be lifted.
So if Megrahi didn't plant the bomb on Pan Am flight 103 which blew up in mid-air on 21 December 1988, who did?
To find the answer we have to go back six months earlier to 3 July 1988, when Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by a guided missile fired from the USS Vincennes. All 290 passengers on the commercial flight to Dubai were killed, including 66 children, eight of whom were under the age of two.
The US government claimed that the crew mistakenly identified the Airbus A300 as an attacking warplane, an F-14 Tomcat fighter, but given the sophisticated radar equipment on the guided missile cruiser, this was ludicrous.
Then Washington claimed the Iran Air flight was outside its flight corridor, flying at only 7000 feet and on a descending course. A few weeks later it admitted that the plane was on a recognised commercial flight path, it was flying at 12,000 feet, it wasn't descending and it was in Iranian territory.
On the other hand, the Vincennes was inside Iran's territorial waters when it fired at the airliner and blew it out of the air.
One month after the atrocity, vice president George Bush, a former CIA director, boasted: "I'll never apologise for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are." He later became US president for one term and his son, George W, was president between 2000 and 2008.
Adding insult to grievous injury, the US Government awarded Combat Action Ribbons to all the crew of the Vincennes and the captain received the Legion of Merit.
In response, the hardliners in the Iranian government decided to teach the Great Satan a lesson. They put out a tit-for-tat contract and it was accepted by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command), a fully paid up branch of the Syrian intelligence service based in Damascus. Its operatives, who installed a bomb in a piece of luggage which was loaded onto the Pan Am flight, collected around US$40 million for the terror operation.
At that time, for various geopolitical reasons, the American and British governments were not anxious to indict the Tehran and Damascus regimes for the Lockerbie crime. So all eyes turned to their favorite demon du jour, Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.
The identity of Lockerbie's paymasters and executioners may never come to light because the intelligence agencies in London, Washington, Tehran and Damascus who know their names want to keep it that way. The Megrahi agreement has won the enthusiastic support of Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Libyan British Business Council which had been demanding the prisoner's release. It has opened the way for Britain's leading oil companies to pursue multi-billion-dollar contracts with Libya, he told the BBC.
Certainly, it represents another milestone in Gaddafi's relentless climb out of international pariah status. Since Blair's 2004 Libyan visit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and many other heads of state have paid their respects to the maverick colonel. He shook hands with President Obama in Rome in July during a cordial exchange.
In February he became chairman of the 53-nation African Union and announced his proposal to build a United States of Africa. On 1 September, he will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his overthrow of the corrupt and decrepit British-backed monarchy in 1969. With Megrahi in Tripoli's Green Square for the festivities, Gaddafi will be at the peak of his mercurial career.
He is now the longest serving ruler in the Arab world. On 23 February he is scheduled to visit the United Nations in New York to address the General Assembly. It is his first-ever visit to the US and he will speak immediately following President Obama because Libya now holds a two-year seat on the UN Security Council and its UN ambassador, Dr Ali Triki, has been elected this session's General Assembly president.
The lynch-mob reception from America's nutters, many of whom are still unable to accept a black president in the White House, will be frightening.
First published 24 August 2009 on newmatilda.com