They seek him here, they seek him there. The hunt for the man convicted of murdering 270 people in Pan Am 103 in 1988 Britain’s, Abdelbaset al Megrahi, continues. He’s not at his mansion in Tripoli, though neighbours claim he was there untll very recently – scotching one of the more fanciful rumours about the Lockerbie Bomber: that he’s already dead and that a body double has been sitting in at Gaddafi’s rallies. But what to do when they find him? There are reports that Libya’s new government is reluctant to extradict him because he is a member of Gaddafi’s clan. American politicians and commentators are calling for his capture – dead or alive. It shouldn’t be too difficult to locate a dying man in a wheel-chair in a war zone. But when he is apprehended – the only people with the right to try him again are the people of Libya.
“More bad news for Megrahi”, said the headline in the Independent.” Scottish probation officers are on his trail”. I’m not sure that the man convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history is exactly shaking in his wheelchair at the prospect of East Renfrewshire council being on his case. Under the terms of his release from Greenock Prison two years ago, al Megrahi is supposed to be in regular contact. Perhaps a crack team of special probation officers is preparing to be injected into the war zone to track him down.
I would worry rather more about those reports in June that a deal has been struck between Barack Obama and the Libyan rebels to hand Megrahi over to American special forces so that he can be extradited to America. There’s something of a bidding war underway among US politicians right now over bringing back the head of Adelbaset al Megrahi. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, says he wants the Lockerbie Bomber seized and brought to face trial in America. This would raise some interesting legal issues, not least because Megrahi has already been convicted by a Scottish court in Camp Zeist in 2001 and the US doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Scots law. Of course, the American Seals have a tried and tested way of cutting through these legal technicalities, as the late Osama bin Laden discovered in Pakistan recently.
It’s all becoming just a little tasteless, this hot pursuit of a dying man. David Cameron didn’t help by saying this week that he agreed the Lockerbie bomber should be brought back to jail. The UK prime minister has no jurisdiction here either and he would have been wiser to keep his trap shut. Many US politicians and Lockerbie parents believe that the British government shared responsibility for springing al Megrahi in the first place. The New York lawyer, James Kreindler, who has represented the Pan Am 103 victims is in no doubt. “It was all a scam so (British Petroleum) could get its oil leases for Libyan oil fields”, he said yesterday, “which they’re using to pay for the damage caused by the Gulf (of Mexico) oil spill”. This masterful conflation of two mega scandals – Pan Am 103 and Deepwater Horizon – has placed Britain firmly in the dock of US public opinion.
`Of course, as we in Scotland know, oil and UK policy had nothing to do with the release of al Megrahi in August 2009 by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill. He was released on compassionate grounds under due process of Scots law on the basis of evidence from Dr Andrew Fraser, the director for health and care for the Scottish Prison Service that al Megrahi had only three months to live. Mind you, it’s hardly surprising that the Americans find this account hard to swallow, and not just because al Megrahi is still going strong two years on. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, admitted in February that Britain had pursued a covert policy to “discreetly” help the Libyans to repatriate al Megrahi. The former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was fully aware of this policy even as he condemned the Scottish government for releasing al Megrahi – one of the most blatant examples of diplomatic hypocrisy since , well, since Britain sold £100m of arms to Gaddafi, including tear gas and sniper rifles, while condemning his record on human rights.
No one comes out of this affair untainted – except of course the victims. Even their families were criticised for accepting £1.7b in “blood money” from the Libyan government. The release of the Megrahi has undoubtedly caused damage to Scotland’s image abroad, especially in the USA, and has raised many awkward questions about the competence of Scots law. Perhaps, indeed, reopening the case could be the way to resolve this whole issue. But it has to be in Libya itself. It would surely be in the interests of everyone – victims, lawyers, politicians in America and Britain – if, rather than be assassinated by US special forces, or extradited to face an unfair trial in the America, Gaddafi’s former intelligence officer were to be tried on Libyan soil. He has a lot to tell the world about what had been going on under his watch. From IRA arms shipments, to bombs on planes. Hopefully, the Transitional National Council will see the opportunity here to begin the process of peace and conciliation by making al Megrahi face trial in Tripoli.
In the end, they and only they, have legal authority to hold al Megrahi to account for actions that have so damaged Libya abroad and at home. American lawyers and Scottish civil rights activists would be free to provide the new Libyan prosecution service with all the evidence that has been collected on this extraordinary case over the last quarter century, including the evidence re-examined by the Scottish Criminal Courts Review Commission. One reason why feelings run so high in America is that they still believe that Megrahi really did bomb of Pan am 103 back in 1988 killing 270. In Scotland, many prominent public figures, like the former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, and Dr Jim Swire, of the Lockerbie victims groups, are adamant that there was a miscarriage of justice and that al Megrahi is innocent. Kenny MacAskill claims that this climate of opinion didn’t influence his decision, but it certainly provided the backdrop. He must have known that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission also had serious doubts because it agreed to allow al Megrahi the right to make another appeal. The was only abandoned when al Megrahi was released on health grounds, thus saving Scottish law any further embarrassment. We will know more when the SCCRC report is published next month. But for most people the revelation that the key prosecution witness, Maltese shop owner Tony Gauci, had been offered large sums of money, perhaps $2m, to give evidence fatally undermines the prosecution case.
If there were to be another trial, all this could be re-examined and the conspiracies laid to rest. Assuming, of course, that al Megrahi lives that long – as well he might since he is believed to be on expensive drugs that slow the progress of prostate cancer. We don’t need lynch law here. The best way to honour the dead of Pan Am 103 would be to let the new democratic Libya settle its own account with its bloody past.