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Return of accused Al-Magrahi to Libya ignites political storm
Philip Stott, International Socialists (CWI in Scotland)
The release from Greenock prison of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people, has provoked a storm of political protest. US president Barak Obama called the decision a “mistake”, the Director of the FBI Robert Mueller accused the SNP’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill of giving “comfort to terrorists”, and some Republican senators in the US have called for an economic boycott of Scotland in protest.
Given the horrors that the families of those killed have suffered there has been understandable, widespread anger and opposition to the release of Megrahi, especially among the US families of those who died.
Devastation of lockerbie bomb
The recent debate in the Scottish parliament saw leaders of all the main opposition parties attack the minority SNP (Scottish National Party) government and MacAskill for allowing the terminally ill Megrahi to leave Scotland on compassionate grounds for Libya after spending eight years in prison. A vote of the Scottish parliament on the issue is likely next week. Megrahi was welcomed back to Libya by the Libyan leader, Colonel Gadaffi. In Libya Megrahi is widely seen as having been a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Gordon Brown has so far refused to make any comment on the decision to release Megrahi
The mood in Scotland generally, and amongst the UK relatives of those killed in the bombing is more mixed. Normally, the idea of releasing an individual who was responsible for the murder of 280 people, even if he was terminally ill with cancer, would be overwhelmingly opposed. However, the fact that many of the UK relatives and others believe Megrahi was not responsible for planting the bomb and that the reality of what happened in 1988 has been deliberately covered up has produced a much more muted opposition to Megrahi’s release amongst some and significant levels of support for his release among others. A recent poll by the BBC in Scotland found 32% of people supported Megrahi’s release.
Pan Am flight 103 left London Heathrow on December 21st 1988 at 6.25pm for New York’s JFK airport but blew up just after 7pm over Scotland killing all 259 people on board. When the wing section of the plane hit the ground at over 500 miles an hour 11 people in the town of Lockerbie also lost their lives as their homes were vapourised in the intense heat. Debris was found over an 81 mile distance. This was and still is the biggest terror attack ever carried out in the UK. It was also the biggest loss of US lives in a terrorist attack until the events of 9/11 2001.
Forensic investigators found that the bomb had been put into a radio, placed in a suitcase and had been set to go off while the plane was in the air. Despite the eventual accusations made against Libya – that their intelligence agents were responsible for the bombing – the initial focus of the investigations were aimed at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP – GC), who were funded by Iran and headquartered in Syria. The PFLP – GC had carried out attacks on Israel during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
For more than two years it was this line of enquiry that the FBI, the Scottish police and other agencies followed. The suspicion was that the PFLP – GC had been paid to carry out the bombing in retaliation to the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by the warship USS Vincennes in July 1988. 270 people most of them pilgrims heading for Mecca died in the attack. The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran.
Suspected PFLP-GC members had been arrested in Frankfurt two months before the Lockerbie bombing with Semtex explosive devices concealed in Toshiba radios. It was the fragments of a similar radio device that was found to have contained the bomb that blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. German federal police provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.
However, in the run up to the first Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 when the US were looking for support from Iran and Syria (Syria joined the US coalition) the PFLP-GC investigation was stopped. The economic and strategic interests of US imperialism in its intervention in the Middle East were almost certainly the key factor in the decision to abandon the pursuit of the PFLP-GC and the connection with the Iranian and Syrian regimes.
Attention shifted to the Libyan dictatorship of Colonel Gadaffi, who had given support and resources to terror organisations in the past including the IRA and the Abu Nidal Palestinian group, who had carried out horrific attacks on civilians at airports in Vienna and Rome. The US under Ronald Regan and supported by Thatcher had bombed the Libyan capital Tripoli in 1986. In 1999 after years of threats, and economic sanctions Libya agreed to allow two of its intelligence agents, one of whom was Megrahi (see picture on left), to stand trial for the bombing in Zeist in the Netherlands where a Scottish court would sit. In 2001 Megrahi was found guilty by three judges of the bombing. He was eventually sentenced to 27 years in jail in Scotland.
During the trial it was alleged that Megrahi had placed the bomb in the suitcase in Malta, where he had also bought clothes to conceal the bomb in, fragments of the clothing were claimed to be found among the debris at Lockerbie. The suitcase was supposedly then flown to Frankfurt and then to Heathrow where it was transferred onto Pam Am 103. The key witness who claimed to have sold Megrahi the clothing in Malta, Tony Gauci, was paid $2million for his evidence - probably by the CIA.
There was widespread questioning over the outcome of the trial in 2001. Robert Black QC, an emeritus professor of Scottish law at Edinburgh University, was one of the legal architects of the original trial in Holland commented, “No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.’
An unnamed senior British police officer – known to be a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS), which implies that his rank is assistant chief constable or higher – has testified to Megrahi’s defence team that crucial evidence at the trial was fabricated.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the Lockerbie bombing, has long believed Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing and has campaigned for a public enquiry made a telling point about Margaret Thatcher who was prime minister at the time of the Lockerbie disaster. “She refused even to meet me, as a representative of the families, to hear our request for a public inquiry. And then, in 1993, in her memoirs, she writes that after she backed the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, Libya never again mounted a serious attack on the West. How can she write that if she believed Libya was behind Lockerbie two years later? Unless she knows something she is not saying.”
In the meantime the geo-political situation had changed markedly. Following the decision to allow Megrahi to stand trial in 1999 and the attacks on the Twin towers in New York in 2001 the Libyan leadership let it be known they were prepared to engage with US imperialism. Gadaffi agreed to abandon a nuclear weapons programme and following Tony Blair’s visit to Libya in 2004 the last of the economic sanctions imposed on Libya by the UN and the EU were lifted.
Moreover, British and US imperialism were licking their lips at the prospects of the enormous profits to be made from contracts with Libya, including its large oil and gas reserves. BP, with its many links to New Labour, has signed a $900 million gas exploration contract to build 17 wells in Libyan territory.
The Sunday Herald newspaper reported that: “The Libyan British Business Council, a group whose motto is "building bridges with Libya", advertises its services as making introductions to "high-level" decision-makers, government officials and potential partners.
“The LBBC’s chairman, Lord Trefgarne, was Mrs Thatcher’s former defence procurement minister, while the group’s director general, Robin Lamb, was a one-time Foreign Office diplomat in Tripoli. Oliver Miles, the LBBC’s deputy chairman, is the UK’s former ambassador to Libya, while board member Sir Richard Dalton is a former British ambassador to Iran. The group’s membership list also reads like a who’s who of British business, including BG International, British American Tobacco, Barclays Bank, Wood Group and HSBC.
“A LBBC-led delegation to Tripoli in May focused on investment opportunities in Libya’s financial institutions, while in June Prince Andrew co-hosted an event at St James’ Palace in London with the chairman of the Libya Africa Investment Portfolio. Next month, the group stages an event to discuss the multi-million pound water and desalination contracts the Libyan government is expected to hand out. “
British companies are queuing up to cash in on the opening up of contracts in the financial, defence and energy sectors of Libya.
Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown have claimed there was no trade deal to allow Megrahi to be released but it is clear that the interests of big business played a key role in the unfolding of these cynical events. Including the signing by Tony Blair of a UK/Libya prisoner transfer agreement in 2007, clearly aimed at Megrahi as he was the only Libyan prisoner in a UK jail at the time.
Megrahi lost his first appeal but the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission found in 2007 that a second appeal should be allowed as there were 6 grounds to suspect that a miscarriage of justice had been carried out. These included evidence, not made available to the defence that indicated four days before Tony Gauci in Malta picked out Megrahi in an identification parade he saw a photograph of him in a magazine article linking him to the bombing, undermining the reliability of his testimony.
Other material that would have come out in court included the US intelligence documents that discounted Libyan involvement and blamed Iran in response to the shooting down of the Iranian commercial airliner by the USS Vincennes, a US warship, five months before the bombing. The US Defence Intelligence Agency papers suggested that Tehran sponsored the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Ahmed Jibril – a former Syrian army officer.
Megrahi dropped his right to a second appeal just days before he was released. The suspicion is that he was told this would speed up his return to Libya. Had Megrahi won his appeal, it would have been a disaster for the Scottish legal system and exposed the cynical actions of US imperialism. As Robert Black commented: “There was strong pressure from civil servants and Crown officials to bring the appeal to an end”
The SNP, Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish legal establishment together have a common interest in protecting the standing of a so-called “Scottish institution”. As a report in the Sunday Times revealed “an anonymous email sent to a SNP MSP (Scottish MP), purporting to come from a justice department official said that Megrahi’s appeal was an “an almighty headache” for the criminal justice system concerned about flaws in the case against Megrahi and vulnerable to accusations that the Crown withheld crucial information from his defence team.
“The priority for the SNP has been to uphold the integrity of the Scottish judicial system, whether it deserves it or not,” said the SNP MSP. “It fits in with the general strategy of the SNP that you don’t rock the boat.
To make matters worse for those, and especially the relatives of those victims of the Lockerbie disaster who want the truth the Foreign Secretary Labour’s David Milliband has slapped a Public Interest Immunity Certificate to ensure that “secret” documents on the Lockerbie bombing cannot now be released.
The 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing and their relatives have and are been treated like pawns in the manoeuvres carried out by successive governments to protect big business interests, imperialist influence and to preserve the “integrity” of a biased and class based legal system here in Scotland.
All documents and evidence related to the Lockerbie events and the legal process must be opened to public scrutiny by democratically elected representatives of the families, their representatives and wider society. This could mark a step towards a real accounting of who carried out the atrocity and into those who have sought to cover up, obscure or divert attention away what really took place.
As Jim Swire whose daughter died on December 21st 1988 has said: “The whole process was a political stitch-up from start to finish, which is something that needs to be gotten to the bottom of.”
The Lockerbie disaster and the events surrounding it underline the need to build a mass socialist alternative to the horrors of war, terror attacks and imperialist domination of our world. The International Socialists and the parties and groups that make up the Committee for a Workers International are fighting for socialist change internationally. We believe that a socialist world would lay the basis for an end to imperialist conflict, terrorism, corrupt dictatorships and the exploitation of the world’s peoples by big business interests.
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