Saturday, 19 August 2017

Prisoner transfer agreement “rushed through”

[What follows is excerpted from a report published on the politics.co.uk website on this date in 2009:]

The prime minister [Gordon Brown] was accused today of rushing through the ratification of a treaty to protect oil interests in Libya which allegedly involves a 'deal' to repatriate the Lockerbie bomber.
MPs and peers on the joint human rights committee claim they were denied the opportunity to properly scrutinise the treaty with Tripoli.
They accuse government ministers of overlooking human rights in their haste to rush through the agreement with Tripoli and protect British investment.
Justice secretary Jack Straw wrote to the committee in March saying: "Both the foreign secretary and I believe, in the interests of our judicial and wider bilateral relations with Libya, it is important to ratify... a delay beyond April is likely to lead to serious questions on the part of Libya in regards to our willingness to conclude these agreements."
The committee responded: "We... regret that we have been unable to publish a substantive report on the treaty before Easter and, therefore, before ratification."
The Earl of Onslow, a Conservative member of the committee, said: "This is not a good way to deal with matters of justice.
"One shouldn't allow whether one has a right to drill for oil in the Gulf of Sidra to have any influence on what is essentially a criminal matter."
The treaty was allegedly rushed through due to the health of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The Libyan government has long been lobbying for the 57-year-old to be returned to his home country.
Former British ambassador to Libya Sir Richard Dalton said relations with Tripoli would be damaged if Megrahi were allowed to die in prison.
However, he added: "This is first and last a judicial matter."
Last night Hillary Clinton reiterated her opposition to the possible release of the Lockerbie bomber in a strongly worded message to the Scottish government.
The US secretary of state said it would be "absolutely wrong" to release Megrahi.
"We are still encouraging the Scottish authorities not to do so and we hope that they will not," she said.
Earlier this week, a letter was sent from seven US senators including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry to Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, urging him to keep Mr Megrahi behind bars.
The Libyan is currently dying from terminal prostate cancer.
He dropped his second appeal against his conviction on Tuesday - a move which is thought to clear the way for his release from prison on compassionate grounds.
However, a crown appeal against the length of his sentence is still ongoing.
Scotland's finance secretary John Swinney said Mr MacAskill had gone to "significant lengths" to listen to everybody's opinion on the case.
The Scottish justice secretary is due to decide within the next two weeks on an application for Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds, as well as a Libyan government request for a transfer to allow him to serve out his sentence in his homeland.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Not a single shred of evidence the bomb was on the Air Malta flight

[What follows is the text of a report published on the website of The Drum on this date in 2010:]

A claim made in a recent STV documentary about the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing has got one Scottish MSP hot under the collar and could lead to a legal threat to STV from Air Malta.

In 1993 Air Malta won an out of court settlement against Granada TV, which claimed a bag containing a bomb had been transported, unaccompanied, on one of their flights. The STV documentary also made this claim.
In a letter shared with independent legal magazine The Firm, [Christine] Grahame said: “I was extremely disappointed when I saw the STV documentary and the one-sided and biased manner in which they recounted the events surrounding the atrocity."
"There remains very serious doubts over the safety of the conviction, but the STV film apparently chose to focus on the controversial and highly disputed claims of the senior investigators. There were a number of misleading statements made in the film, but I think the most worrying from STV's perspective will be the unfounded allegation that the case alleged to have carried the bomb, was transported, unaccompanied, on an Air Malta flight.
“When Air Malta sued Granada TV for making the same unfounded allegation the airline was able to prove that all 55 bags that were loaded onto the flight to Frankfurt were ascribed to passengers. Granada TV were forced to settle out of court and pay costs to Air Malta and to this day not a single shred of evidence has ever been produced showing the bomb was on the Air Malta flight.
“I now understand that Air Malta are considering whether to take similar legal action against STV for repeating this unfounded allegation. Once again the gaping holes in the case raise serious questions over the safety of the conviction and have exposed the superficiality of the recent STV film."
Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the air tragedy, has already written to STV pointing out the same factual point.
His letter stated: "May I suggest that you obtain a copy of the court transcripts for your lawyers to study?" he said. "Had I been aware of what you proposed to air, I would of course have warned you. Perhaps it would be best to broadcast a correction to your viewers in the circumstances, but you may wish to 'legal' that."
A spokesperson for STV, commented: "We are absolutely confident that the recent STV documentary reported the facts of the case, as legally established in court.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

'I don't want £6m, I want the truth'

[This is part of the headline over a report published in The Guardian on this date in 2003. It reads as follows:]

The brother of a victim of the Lockerbie disaster has vowed to reject a multi-million pound compensation deal from Libya because he does not believe it has been proved guilty of the attack.

Law lecturer Alistair Berkley was a 29-year-old passenger on the New York-bound Boeing 747 which was blown up over the Scottish town on 21 December 1988, killing all 259 on board plus 11 on the ground.

A £1.7 billion compensation agreement was revealed on Friday as part of a package which also included a letter from the Libyan government to the United Nations which has been widely interpreted as an admission of guilt.

The deal amounts to a possible £6.3 million for each of the 270 victims' families, to be paid in stages. About £2.5m will go to each family when the UN lifts sanctions - which could happen as early as next week.

But Matt Berkley, from Hexham, Northumberland, is refusing his share because he does not believe the whole story has been told. He said there was no 'credible evidence' Libya was to blame.

Like many other relatives of those who died, he maintains that the truth about Pan Am Flight 103 is still shrouded in mystery and called on the Government to hold a full public inquiry. There is a strong suspicion among British relatives that the deal was brokered to allow Libya back into the international community and open its markets to Western companies. Colonel Muammar Gadaffi's government has stipulated that the rest of the compensation will be paid when the US lifts its own sanctions and Libya is taken off its list of terror states.

However, Berkley fears that acceptance of the idea that Libya carried out the attack could stifle attempts to launch further investigations into the tragedy which might turn up evidence pointing to the real culprits.

'I went through a process of trying to work out what to do, and it became clear that I would feel bad if I took the money and good if I refused it,' he said. 'I haven't seen what I would consider credible evidence that Libya did it or that any admission by the Libyans would be truthful, rather than simply the result of them being put under enormous pressure by the international community.

'If I sign up, there is a long list of organisations and people that I can't subsequently sue. I don't want to give up my right to sue.'

Libyan intelligence agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is serving a life sentence in a unit - known as the Gadaffi Cafe - within Glasgow's Barlinnie prison. In January 2001 at a purpose-built Scottish court in the Netherlands he was found guilty of planting the bomb, but his co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah, was acquitted.

Megrahi's conviction depended on an identification by a Maltese shopkeeper who said he sold the Libyan items of clothing that were found scattered near the bomb site. Megrahi's legal team is trying to have the verdict quashed and a file is expected to be submitted by Glasgow-based lawyer Eddie MacKechnie to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission within days.

The letter from the Libyan government to the UN states: 'Libya has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103 and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials.'

Long-term Lockerbie campaigner Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora, died, said: 'The agreement still leaves open the question of the truth behind Lockerbie.'

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A cycle of revenge

[What follows is excerpted from an article by Paul Reynolds published on the BBC News website on this date in 2003:]

A Lockerbie-type atrocity in the war-inflicted world of today, might provoke a very different reaction from the superpowers.

A country which blew up an American airliner today could not expect the patient treatment accorded to Libya over the 15 years since Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie.

It could expect invasion.

What happened to Libya after Lockerbie is an example of how a crisis was dealt with by diplomacy, threats, sanctions and law. (...)

Such a broad approach would be unlikely today. We are living under different international rules since 9/11.

Back in 1988, under President Reagan, international terrorism was considered a problem, a plague even, but not a war.

Libya was an active player. In 1984, its "People's Bureau" in London had shot at demonstrators in the square outside, killing a policewoman standing with them.

In 1986, a bomb exploded in the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, used by US servicemen there. Libya was blamed.

And the United States, under Ronald Reagan, retaliated not by invading, but by raiding.

It sent 16 F111's based in Britain to attack and only narrowly missed getting Gaddafi himself, killing instead a young girl said to be his adopted daughter.

One interesting sidebar to that raid was the doubt expressed by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In her memoirs she makes it clear that initially she had her reservations:

"I was worried that the US action might begin a cycle of revenge.

"I was concerned that there must be the right public justification for the action which was taken, otherwise we might just strengthen Gaddafi's standing."

Mrs Thatcher was worried about "an inclination to precipitate action in the United States, which was doubtless mirrored there by a perception of lethargy in Europe".

In the end, she swung behind her friend President Reagan and gave permission for the F111's to be used from their British base. (...)

At the time, war was not really contemplated.

Even Ronald Reagan, who could whip up small civil wars in Central America into a Soviet threat to the United States, was content to send in the jets.

So when the Pan Am plane was brought down over Lockerbie, there was no clear American strategy for dealing with international terrorism.

Pinprick attacks had been met with pinprick responses.

There had been invasions of Grenada and Panama was to follow but Libya was a bigger place, an Arab country and not in America's back yard.

There was, for President Bush senior, the added complication that nobody could be immediately blamed.

The suspicion in fact fell first on Syria and Iran.

An Iranian airliner had been shot down over the Gulf a few months earlier by the US Navy which thought itself under attack.

Lockerbie was felt to be revenge for that.

At that time Syria and Iran were close and attention turned to the Syrian sponsored Palestinian group, the PFLP-GC. It had been found by German police to be in possession of radio cassettes of the type used in the Lockerbie bombing.

Then the link was made to Libya through a circuit board sold by a Swiss firm, a bit of which was also found on the ground near Lockerbie.

In due course, one Libyan was found guilty by the Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands and another acquitted. Sanctions were imposed by the UN.

But there was no war. And Colonel Gaddafi remained in power.

He has had to pay a price.

He was isolated for years and became a minor actor on a stage which he wanted to bestride.

He had to admit blame, though in a roundabout way (accepting responsibility for the actions of Libyan government officials) and he is having to pay large amounts of money.

He might well think he got off cheaply considering what has happened in Iraq.

[RB: Eight years later, of course, Lockerbie was one of the pretexts for UK and US military and political support for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.]

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Megrahi may have been denied justice, the relatives of the dead certainly have been

[What follows is the text of an article by Paul Vallely that was published in The Independent on this date in 2009:]

There has been some very muddled thinking in the debate over whether the man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing should now be freed. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi – the former Libyan intelligence officer who is serving life for murdering 270 people when a bomb exploded on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 – has terminal prostate cancer. Some say he should be released early on compassionate grounds; others because he may well not be guilty of the crime anyway. Others insist he must die behind bars.
It is worth trying to disentangle the arguments here. A society imprisons criminals for a variety of reasons but the main four are: to exact retribution, to restrain villains from committing more crimes, to deter others, and to offer individuals the chance of reform and rehabilitation. Where a prisoner is dying, clearly the notions of restraint and reform can be discounted. That leaves retribution and deterrence.
The word retribution has pretty pejorative connotations in common parlance. It sounds primitive and vindictive. Yet it performs an important function even in a sophisticated community. Offences do not just harm individuals; they do some violence to the social fabric. Retribution is part of how a society restores the equilibrium which the offence disturbed. But in doing that it is important, as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued, that punishment must be proportionate.
The Lockerbie bomb was the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed in Britain. It is appropriate that the punishment for that reflects the abhorrence people felt at the outrage, and not just in the UK. It is interesting, therefore, that the most vehement reaction to the news that al-Megrahi might be freed has come not from the relatives of the Brits who died, but from the families of the American victims. Most of those who were blasted out of the sky at 31,000 feet were US citizens, which is perhaps why the blow to the American national psyche appears to have been greatest.
There is a political dimension, too, to the idea of deterrence in this case. "Freeing Megrahi," one relative said, "would send a message that terrorism is not being taken seriously." Demonstrating compassion would entrench in the minds of al-Qa'ida and other violent jihadists the idea that the West is soft and decadent and lacks the stomach for mortal combat. Releasing Megrahi could be misconstrued as a kind of weakness.
But there is a danger in confusing mercy with weakness. Justice and mercy are not always in tension. Compassion does not indicate indulgence toward evil or tolerance of injury. Rather it can be a demonstration of the civilised confidence of a society which does not respond to violence with violence of its own. Showing compassion to those who refused to extend compassion to their victims does not necessarily undermine justice. It may sometimes strengthen it.
If it is key to the concept of retribution that it should be proportionate – that the punishment should fit the crime – then there is a powerful argument for suggesting that the compassionate release of a dying man is part of that sense of proportion. Prisons are not hospitals and lack the medical and social facilities routinely available to those who are dying. To withdraw those from a dying prisoner is not to exact the punishment decreed by a court but in some way to extend it. A core element in retribution is the idea that the criminal gets what he deserves. Very few people deserve to die in a cage.
So the argument for releasing Megrahi early obtains even if he is indubitably guilty. He should be allowed home to die. Proportion is important here too. Permission for early release was denied when his lawyers first applied in 2008 after doctors told judges that, with adequate palliative care, Megrahi could live for several years. Early release requests are normally only granted where a prisoner has fewer than three months to live, and that seems proportionate too. If Megrahi is that close to death he should be released.
All this is quite separate from the question of Megrahi's protested innocence, and yet that is not entirely irrelevant either. There are potent arguments both ways on his guilt or otherwise, and differing views are held among individuals who have paid far closer attention to the case than have most of those now offering ready opinions.
It may sound more plausible, as some US intelligence reports have suggested, that it was not Libya behind the bombing but Iran; the Lockerbie bomb happened just five months after a US warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 on board, many of them pilgrims bound for Mecca – prompting the Ayatollah Khomeini to announce that the skies would "rain with blood" in revenge. But those who have most closely scrutinised the detail of the case have formed polarised opinions.
On the one hand, a panel of three Scottish judges considered the evidence against Megrahi for 78 days and unanimously found him guilty. On the other hand, many of the British relatives of those who died, who have studied the evidence in most detail, believe Megrahi to be innocent. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the attack, has described the Libyan's conviction as "one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in history".
It now looks as though we may never know the truth. Megrahi has dropped his appeal against conviction, possibly to expedite his return to Libya, possibly because he is now too ill to fight on. Justice delayed is justice denied, the old legal aphorism has it. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may – or perhaps may not – have been denied justice. But the relatives of the dead certainly have been - for they have now lost the only remaining vehicle which might have brought them, 21 years after the event, somewhere nearer finding out who really killed their loved ones.

Monday, 14 August 2017

$2.7 billion Lockerbie settlement reached

[This is the headline over a report published on Aljazeera’s English language website on this date in 2003. It reads as follows:]

Libya has signed a deal with the families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in which Tripoli will shell out $2.7 billion in compensation.

Under the accord, Tripoli will pay each of the families $10 million in instalments, based on the lifting of United Nations and United States sanctions, said lawyers on Thursday.

Libya will also be removed from Washington’s list of nations which allegedly support “terrorism”.

Representatives of British families whose relatives were killed in the Pan Am flight 103 disaster over the Scottish town of Lockerbie that left 270 people dead, said the deal was “purely financial” and doubted the money would be paid.

“This is a financial deal for Libya. This is all Libya cares about, to extricate itself from the sanctions and re-enter the international, in particular US, market,” claimed Mark Zaid, a US lawyer for 50 of the families.

In 2001, Scottish court Camp Zeist, set up in the Netherlands, convicted Abd al-Basset Ali al-Megrahi, one of two Libyan agents charged with the bombing, and sentenced him to life in prison.

After signing the accord on Wednesday, family lawyers said they expected the compensation to be deposited with the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) soon, and that Libya would be sending its letter accepting responsibility to the UN Security Council.

Diplomatic sources said on Tuesday that Libya had agreed to send a letter to the Security Council, either by Thursday or Friday, admitting it was behind the attack. [RB: Libya, of course, never did admit it was behind the attack: it accepted "responsibility for the acts of its citizens".]

The first $4 millions are expected to be paid to the victims’ families when world body sanctions against Tripoli are lifted, following its acceptance of responsibility.

The embargo was suspended but not llifted after Libya handed over the two former Libyan intelligence agents in the case.

Lifting UN sanctions will pave the way for talks between Washington and Tripoli about the lifting of separate US sanctions.

A further $4 million would be delivered to each family once US sanctions are lifted and the final $2 million would be handed over if Libya is removed from the US list of states allegedly supporting “terrorism”.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

UK and US Lockerbie relatives’ views diverge on Megrahi release

[What follows is the text of a report published in The Guardian on this date in 2009:]

Preparations are under way to free the Libyan man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing from prison next week, after doctors said his terminal prostate cancer was in its final stages.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, sentenced to a minimum life term of 25 years in 2001 for killing 270 people in the bombing, is expected to be released on compassionate grounds in time to return home for the start of the festival of Ramadan next week.

It was reported last night that the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, told the Libyan government to make preparations for Megrahi's imminent release and arrange his flight home.

MacAskill, who has the final say over whether Megrahi should be transferred or released, visited the Libyan last week in Greenock prison, near Glasgow.

The Scottish parole board has also been asked for its views on granting compassionate early release to the former Libyan agent.

Scottish government officials insisted last night that no decision had been made to release Megrahi, either to send him home on compassionate grounds or to grant a separate Libyan request for him to continue his sentence in Libya.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "We can confirm that no decision has been made on applications under the prisoner transfer agreement or compassionate early release by Mr Al Megrahi.

"Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill is still considering all the representations in both cases and hopes to make a decision this month."

Megrahi's release is being resisted by US relatives of some of the 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 on 21 December 1988.

American Susan Cohen, whose only child, 20-year-old Theodora, was one of 35 students from Syracuse University in New York on the flight, said any suggestion that Megrahi should be freed on compassionate grounds was "vile".

Speaking from her home in New Jersey, she said: "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.

"It just shows that the power of oil money counts for more than justice. There have been so many attempts to let him off. It has to do with money and power and giving [Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar] Gaddafi what he wants. My feelings, as a victim, apparently count for nothing."

She added: "This is just horrible. Compassion for him? How about compassion for my beautiful daughter? She deserves compassion not a mass murderer."

However, many British families believe Megrahi is innocent. The Libyan is part-way through an appeal against his 2001 conviction, at a trial held in the Netherlands heard under Scottish law. MacAskill cannot grant him a transfer while his appeal against his conviction goes through the courts. However if Megrahi were granted release on compassionate grounds he would not have to drop his appeal for this to be granted.

Pamela Dix, from UK Families Flight 103, said there had been a "lack of justice" for those killed in the tragedy.

Ms Dix, whose brother Peter was killed in the atrocity, told BBC2's Newsnight she was "baffled" by much of the evidence in the trial that led to Megrahi's conviction.

Asked whether his release would be a coup for Gaddafi on the 40th anniversary of his rise to power, she said: "That may well be the case. I'm not really in a position to judge the political situation in Libya."

Dix, said last night it was still far from clear whether Megrahi was innocent or guilty since the trial had left so many unanswered questions.

"Almost 21 years after the Lockerbie bombing, I would expect to know who did it, why they did it and how they did it. Instead, we're left in situation of really knowing very little about what happened."

Dr Jim Swire, who lost his 23-year-old daughter Flora, said it would be to Scotland's credit if the Libyan was released. "I am someone who does not believe he is guilty," he said. "The sooner he is back with his family the better.

"On reasonable human grounds it is the right thing to do and if it's true that he is to be returned on compassionate grounds then that would be more to Scotland's credit than returning him under the prisoner transfer agreement.

"It would mean that he can go to his family who he adores and live the last of his days on this planet with them."

Martin Cadman, who lost his son Bill, aged 32, in the disaster, concurred.

"I hope it is true as it's something we've been wanting for a long time," he said.

"I think he is innocent and even if he were not innocent I still think it's certainly the right thing to do on compassionate grounds."

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Media urged to back fresh Lockerbie inquiry

[This is the headline over an article published in The Drum on this date in 2010. It reads in part:]

Justice for Megrahi, a campaign group ... is now spearheading an international coalition inviting the press to back a petition calling for an inquiry into the Lockerbie bombing.

... the statement was distributed directly to the editors in chief of the Financial Times, the Herald, Guardian, Observer, The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Irish Times and The Scotsman and their respective Sunday sister titles, in addition to the Times of Malta. [RB: The full text of JfM’s letter to the various editors can be read here.]

Timed to coincide with renewed interest in the case both at home and abroad following Al-Megrahi’s compassionate release, which has seen the terminal cancer sufferer outlive his projected life expectancy by a considerable margin, the group hopes to up the political heat on governments either side of the Atlantic.

Signatories, who thus far include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr Jim Swire and Tam Dalyell, are calling for the “travesty of justice” which led to Al Megrahi’s conviction for planting an improvised explosive device within Pan Am 103 to be looked at anew.

This, campaigners hope, will redeem the image of the Scottish justice system which they say is “regarded internationally as an embarrassment… demonstrably malleable by political hands.”

It is hoped that consensual outrage in the press will be sufficient to tip First Minister Alex Salmond into setting up such an inquiry in Scotland after having already endorsed the idea in principle.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The unfinished business of the Lockerbie bombing

This is the headline over a video that was posted on this date in 2010 on the website of The Guardian. In it actor and playwright David Benson describes how he was inspired by Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in the Lockerbie plane bombing, to create a play about the attack.

The video can be viewed here. A further article about the play and its genesis can be read here.

[RB: David Benson is again performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year but in a very different play, Dad’s Army Radio Hour.]

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Easier to grant compassionate release if appeal dropped

[What follows is taken from an account written by Abdelbaset Megrahi which is to be found on page 354 of John Ashton’s Megrahi: You are my Jury:]

On 10 August [2009], [Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny] MacAskill and his senior civil servants met a delegation of Libyan officials, including Minister [Abdel Ati] al-Obeidi, the Libyan Supreme Court Judge Azzam Eddeeb, and the London ChargĂ© d’Affaires Omar Jelban. By this time I was desperate. The 90-day limit for considering the prisoner transfer application had passed and, although I had some vocal public supporters, MacAskill was coming under considerable pressure to reject both applications. After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obeidi said that, towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private. Once the others had withdrawn, he stated that MacAskill gave him to understand that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. He [MacAskill] said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me to be clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so. It meant abandoning my quest for justice.

Next day, with huge reluctance and sadness, I broke the news to [solicitor] Tony Kelly that I was dropping the appeal