Releasing Al-Megrahi Bodes Ill
- From: jose el fontanero <josefsoplar@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Mon, 24 Aug 2009 08:33:49 -0700 (PDT)
Releasing Al-Megrahi Bodes Ill
Ruth Wedgwood 08.21.09, 7:55 PM ET
At every turn, Libya has probed the weakness of the West. On Dec. 21,
1988, the Libyan state intelligence service blew a Pan Am jet out of
the sky, scattering bodies and wreckage over the countryside of
Lockerbie, Scotland. Thirty-five college students from New York's
Syracuse University never made it home for the holidays.
In response to the bombing, the Americans mobilized lawyers and
diplomats. The U.S. and U.K. marched to the U.N. Security Council to
demand the arrest of the Libyan operatives, and pressed that they be
extradited for prosecution--for at the time, and even now, there were
no international criminal courts with jurisdiction. In reply, Libya
hired a former U.N. legal counselor to file suit before the
International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming the right to try
its own state-commissioned crimes in its own courts.
The Libyan claim was ultimately defeated, by dint of the ICJ's
required deference to a mandatory Security Council resolution. So
Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the honcho of the Socialist People's
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, proposed another solution he could live with.
He called for a specially created criminal court to convene in the
Netherlands, seating Scottish judges and applying Scottish law. An
Italian air force jet was painted white, decked with a U.N. decal, and
flew to Tripoli to pick up the two suspects. As a U.N. veteran has
recounted, the two suspects were not handcuffed on the flight. That
was, perhaps, a symbol of how much sway Libya exercised even then.
Of course, Libya did not promise to turn over evidence and did not
assist the court. But the Scottish police mounted one of the most
extensive forensic investigations seen in the annals of modern crime.
Analysis of thousands of small pieces of debris picked up by dozens of
policemen revealed that the bomb on Pan Am 103 had been concealed in a
Toshiba radio cassette player, and that the clothing used to conceal
the device within a suitcase was purchased in Malta. The unaccompanied
suitcase containing the bomb was sent on its deadly path on Dec. 21,
on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt from Malta's international
airport. It was thereafter transferred to London, where it was loaded
onto Pan Am 103's transatlantic flight.
Tellingly, a senior Libyan intelligence official arrived in Malta Dec.
20, flying from Tripoli on a false passport. He returned to Tripoli
Dec. 21, shortly after the bomb was loaded on the Air Malta flight,
again using a false identity. He provided no explanation for his
activities in Malta, but in fact, he met with Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah,
a former station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta who was
familiar with the airport's protocols.
This same senior Libyan intelligence operative also knew something
about timers for bombs. He had leased offices in Zurich from a small
Swiss company called MEGO. It was revealed to be the firm that
designed a special-order timer called the MST-13, 20 of which it
supplied to the Libyan intelligence service in 1985. Some of these
timers were tested with explosives and air bombs in the Libyan desert.
And critically, the MST-13 was the special-design timer that triggered
the fatal bomb placed in the suitcase that went from Malta, to
Frankfurt, to London, and then on to Pan Am 103.
A New York jury would know how to read such evidence, and what to do
with such a senior operative. Nonetheless, the Scottish courts
succeeded in tying their trousers in a knot, in part because of a
shaky eyewitness identification of the senior operative who was
thought to have purchased the clothing to go in the suitcase bomb. But
as Inspector Maigret would have said, you didn't need that evidence to
This same senior intelligence operative, whose real name is Abdel
Basset Ali al-Megrahi, is now a free man. He was convicted in the
specially created Hague trial court by a panel of Scottish judges, and
his appeal was rejected by the Scottish appellate chamber. He remained
in prison and began to serve his time.
But on Aug. 20, 2009, he was released from his Scottish jail cell by
the justice minister of Scotland, walking away from a 27-year
sentence. The release, said the minister, was a gesture of
"compassion" in light of the defendant's advanced prostate cancer.
Al-Megrahi has now flown back to Tripoli on the Libyan leader's
private plane. Ardent supporters were brought to the airport by
government buses to greet him on his return. He has appeared publicly
with one of al-Qaddafi's sons and will be received officially by al-
Qaddafi as well.
When the prospect of the release of this convicted murderer became
widely known this week, the president of the United States told a
radio interviewer he had "objected" to the release. But he did not say
how much body English had gone into this objection. President Obama
warned that al-Megrahi should not be given a "hero's welcome" by
Libya. But this thought too was, as diplomats like to say, "overtaken
Meanwhile, British Foreign Minister David Miliband says it is a "slur"
to speculate that the release of a mass murderer was influenced, even
at the margin, by the bidding for oil extraction rights in Libya. One
of England's princes has been to Libya three times recently to talk
The role of oil, though, does make the motivation for al-Megrahi's
release look murky, and the road ahead worrisome.
First, Libya may use this "compassionate" release to sow specious
doubt about its own role in the mass murder. This was its tactic,
even, in countering the civil law suits filed by the families of the
victims. Al-Qaddafi agreed to settle with the families, but never
directly admitted Libya's operational role.
Of course, Libya's problem is that the custom-designed timers for
explosives served as a signature in the crime. Undaunted, Libya may
still try to insinuate that it was some other group--say Iran,
operating alone or through the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine. That, of course, is not an especially exculpatory choice,
since after their expulsion from Lebanon, parts of the Palestinian
leadership took up residence in Libya.
Second, and equally dismaying, Libya may read this triumph as a
certified all-purpose "get out of jail free" card--absolving it of a
broad swath of bad acts.
With oil reserves at play in North Africa's version of the Great Game,
it could seem churlish to recall that, without any accounting, during
the 1990s, Libya helped to fuel the bloody civil conflicts of West
Africa, supplying money and weapons to the RUF rebellion in Sierra
Leone, prolonging the misuse of child soldiers and the staggering
atrocities against civilians. Or that Libya may have had a hand in the
unrest on the Sudanese-Chad border, since southern turmoil makes
Libya's southern tribes more dependent on Tripoli for defense.
Libya's leadership still thinks it can get away with common
indecencies. There was, of course, the jailing of the Bulgarian nurses
and Palestinian doctor, released in 2007 after being held as virtual
hostages for eight years in an HIV controversy.
Another striking example consists of a recent contretemps in Geneva.
Last summer, the Swiss police arrested one of al-Qaddafi's sons,
Hannibal al-Qaddafi, in the lakeside environs of the Hotel Wilson,
charging him with serious physical abuse of his household staff.
Hannibal was released on a bail of 500,000 Swiss francs (about 475,000
U.S. dollars) and returned to Libya.
In the style of Don Corleone, the Tripoli regime quickly suspended oil
sales to Switzerland, withdrew $7 billion from its Swiss bank accounts
and forbade two Swiss businessmen from leaving Libya. On Aug. 20, just
as the Lockerbie bomber was flying home, the president of Switzerland
chose to appear at a Tripoli press conference to give his apology for
the "unjust arrest" of Hannibal al-Qaddafi. He was assured, he said,
that the two Swiss businessmen would be allowed to go home by early
Then there is Libya's own domestic human rights record. Two years ago,
the U.N. Human Rights Committee noted its concern at the "allegedly
large number of forced disappearances and cases of extrajudicial,
summary or arbitrary executions." Libya has never finished its inquiry
into the killing of many hundreds of prisoners at the Abu Salim prison
in 1996. It still controls and intimidates the press.
The release of the Lockerbie bomber as an act of "humanitarianism" is
thus likely to be mistaken for weakness. First-class medical care must
be provided to any person serving a criminal sentence. It has been
suggested by many, in a rather different debate, that this quality is
available under Britain's National Health Service. Visits from family
members are also an appropriate accommodation.
But there is no right to be released from a 27-year sentence, when the
victims of mass murder cannot be released from the grave. We should be
concerned about the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber--for the
audacity that it may breed in the Libyan regime, and as a wider signal
of the West's lack of resolve when an oil-rich suitor comes calling.
Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of international law at Johns Hopkins
University's School of Advanced International Studies and a member of
the Hoover Institution task force on law and national security.
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