Ramifications of releasing the Lockerbie bomber

Friday, August 28, 2009 | 9:02 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 4, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism:  The bombing of a Pan American jet as it was flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988 murdered 270 people. Most of those killed were Americans. Twelve years after the plane blew out of the sky, a Dutch court operating under Scottish rules found Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a member of the Libyan security forces, guilty of the murders. He was sentenced to 27 years in jail. Last week, the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he released Megrahi from jail after serving only seven years because Megrahi is suffering from prostate cancer and has less than three months to live. But, others think there was a deal between the British government and Libya intended to create favorable trade conditions with the oil rich country. Your story in the Scotsman (Thursday) says that MacAskill did not consult cancer experts when he claimed that Megrahi had less than three months to live. That makes it sound as though he may have had an ulterior motive. If so, what might that have been?

David Maddox, political correspondent, The Scotsman, Edinburgh, Scotland: Four specialists were consulted and none said that Megrahi had three months to live. They said they couldn’t tell. Only the prison doctor was willing to say he had less than three months. The suspicion is that MacAskill always intended to release Megrahi and was just looking for people to back him up. I don’t believe it has anything to do with a deal with the British government. One reason is that the Scottish Nationalist administration and the Labour government in London have such a bad relationship that the Scottish government would tell about the intervention from London. The ulterior motive may simply be that MacAskill did not believe in the guilt of Megrahi. Many in Scotland feel that actually Megrahi was not guilty. If MacAskill had raised doubts about the conviction he would have undermined the integrity of the Scottish justice system.

Loory: MacAskill claims that he discussed the situation with Jack Straw, a member of the Gordon Brown cabinet, and that Straw gave him the authority to talk to Megrahi.

Keith Weir, chief correspondent, Reuters, London: There was a prisoner transfer agreement signed between Britain and Libya earlier in the year; it gave Scottish authorities the option of sending Megrahi back to a prison in Libya. MacAskill decided not to pursue that option. MacAskill and the Scottish national government have been very critical of the way the British authorities opened up this case, then safely left it to Scottish authorities to decide.

Loory: How much of it was the British effort to repair relations with Libya?

Weir: The British government says it wasn’t involved at all. One could be skeptical about this, but ultimately, it was a decision taken by MacAskill. This can’t really be pinned on the British government. Some critics accuse the British of wanting to have the best of both worlds.

Loory: What is the reaction in Libya and what does it mean to Muammar al-Qaddafi and the Libyan place in the world?

Martin Fletcher, foreign correspondent, Times of London, Tripoli, Libya: Most ordinary Libyans are delighted; they never believed he was guilty in the first place. They see Megrahi as a man who sacrificed his own liberty for the sake of the country to get sanctions lifted. For Qaddafi, it shows the emerging power of Libya, a country with vast oil and gas reserves and billions of dollars to spend. Western countries are now seeking its favor, not just the British. Last year, Hannibal Qaddafi, the leader’s son, was arrested in Geneva, Switzerland and spent two days in custody. Since then, the Libyans have been punishing the Swiss with trade sanctions. Libya is riding high, culminated when Megrahi flew home last Thursday and the Swiss president flew to Tripoli and issued a groveling apology.

Loory: How will the release of Megrahi impact Libya’s role in the world stage?

Alessandro Bruno, deputy editor, North Africa Journal, Toronto, Canada: Rumors of the release can be traced back over three years. The Scotsman published an article in 2006 claiming that the Lockerbie police chief noticed some errors in the investigation and trial, so there was a mistrial possibility. In 2008, there were measures taken in Scotland for a possible appeal of the entire conviction. By getting rid of Megrahi, Scotland has removed that possibility and he remains guilty in the eyes of the world. (Al Amin Khalifa) Fhimah, the other person arrested for the bombing, was released in 2001 on lack of evidence. In December 2003, Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair was the first Western leader to go to Libya, in 2004. BP and Shell Oil have been there since 2005; there was no need for the British government to go this far to secure oil and gas contracts, which they already have.

Loory: The Obama administration did not approve of this release; will it have any impact on U.S. and U.K. relations, or whatever American companies are trying to establish themselves in Libya?

Peter Grier, Washington editor, Christian Science Monitor, Washington, D.C.: A small event like this won’t make that much difference on U.S. and U.K relations. The more interesting thing is U.S.-Libyan relations. Qaddafi is scheduled to address the U.N.; we have yet to see how the Obama administration is going to react.

Loory: Qaddafi was planning to stay in Englewood, New Jersey; now there is a move to ban him from the state.

Grier: In the U.S., many people believe Megrahi was guilty; overseas there is a much more subtle opinion. It has echoes of 9/11 here; surviving family members were given a lot of media play in the immediate days after the release.

Loory: Has there been anything from Qaddafi since the release that he knows a mistake may have been made?

Fletcher: Not at all. He has thanked Gordon Brown, the Scottish government, and kept quite a low profile. In Tripoli, everyone has been trying to get to him or his son, without success. Neither Qaddafi nor any of his ministers appeared at the airport. The homecoming reception was rather overdone in the Western media. We’re all looking for a piece of paper that says a deal was made. It doesn’t need to be that explicit; everyone knows the score. If you play along with the Libyans, you get good deals and they have loads of money to spend. If not, like the Swiss, you get punished.

Maddox:  There is strong suspicion that a deal was struck that Megrahi would drop his appeal and then be released on compassionate grounds, partly to maintain the integrity of the Scottish judicial system. It was strongly suggested that his appeal would have been successful and some embarrassing facts might come out. There was great dissatisfaction, especially with victim’s families in Scotland, that the second appeal didn’t proceed because that was the last chance to find out the truth.

Loory: Qaddafi has been working very hard to rehabilitate his image around the world; what has he done?

Fletcher: He has abandoned WMD’s, renounced terrorism and paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims. But, once in Tripoli, one realizes that this is still a repressive police state. People are terrified of talking about Qaddafi. Journalists are tailed around the city. People shouldn’t get carried away with the idea that suddenly this is a wonderful country. Especially next week, when the world is invited to his 40th anniversary celebration. It will be on a scale that Libya has never launched before.

Loory: Will the U.S. participate?

Grier: Qaddafi, in the U.S., remains a prisoner of his own past success, when he in essence defined a previous era in international terrorism. Any U.S. president is forced to keep him at some length.

Bruno: Qaddafi’s image was no doubt the Bin Laden of the 80s and 90s. He was a very convenient target. That is part of the problem in the U.S. with the Lockerbie trial; no amount of evidence will ever shake Libya from that crime, even if it comes out that they didn’t do it.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Liz Lance, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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