Distasteful political fix
Editorial Comment October 12, 2005
News revealed by The Herald today that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, might be transferred from prison in Scotland to a Muslim jail in North Africa will dismay not only the relatives of the 270 people who died in the worst terrorist act in British history. It will cause understandable outrage among members of the public who believed that the minimum of 27 years Megrahi was told he must serve in a Scottish jail after his conviction meant just that. Transfer to a Muslim country was not part of the deal when Megrahi was handed over and it should not be now.
But it seems the key players Britain, the United States and Libya are so anxious to avoid a retrial that officials are said to have held secret talks to secure a get-out clause. This is the consequence of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) looking into Megrahi's conviction and whether an appeal is possible. There is speculation that the commission will refer the case back to the appeal court early next year. This would apparently open up a matter the three countries want kept under wraps, for different reasons. This could be achieved by moving Megrahi much nearer home, or, indeed, to Libya, and then ensuring his application to the SCCRC was dropped.
Megrahi, an agent of Libya, did not act alone in 1988. Iran and Palestinian terror groups backed by Syria have long been suspected of involvement, though there is no evidence to implicate them. If direct involvement by the Libyan state were shown as the result of another appeal (one by Megrahi has already failed) it would be hugely embarrassing for Colonel Gaddafi. The Libyan leader has overseen his country's steady rehabilitation on the international stage. This has involved repudiating a terror past he would not want exposed anew. According to Tam Dalyell, the former MP and Lockerbie campaigner, Britain wants to avoid the "horror" of the commission finding the verdict unsafe and the detail being "dragged through" the courts.
The US lifted its sanctions against Libya last year. In common with other developed countries, it wants to exploit Libya's oil reserves, the biggest in Africa and among the easiest to refine and cheapest to produce. George W Bush has cited Libya's transformation as vindication of the big-stick approach against WMD and the terror network. That approach has, of course, failed spectacularly in Iraq. Washington would not want to risk its one debatable success, in Libya, being undermined by damaging new detail emerging about its new friend against terror.
These secret talks might eventually be presented as part of a reconciliation process. In Libya's case, that process began with the handover of the Lockerbie suspects and ran its course, through Megrahi's conviction to Tripoli's compliance with the UN resolutions and the lifting of sanctions. Such processes are often distasteful but we accept them if they make the world a safer place. Many murderers have been freed under the Northern Ireland peace process. However, a Megrahi deal reeks more of political convenience than a genuine desire for reconciliation. Libya remains an autocracy whose leaders had a major role in placing the bomb on that plane. We must know and confront all these issues before we can even talk about moving forward. Justice demands transparency it is never merely expedient.