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Libya, Lockerbie & Lies

The struggle by one country against the forces of international oppression

 
 
By SUSAN BRYCE

It was the evening of 21 December 1988, when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in mid air overhead Dean’s Cross in the English Lake District and crashed at Lockerbie in Scotland. All 259 passengers and crew on the plane were killed instantly, and a total of eleven local people also died in the crash.

Initially, Syria, and then Iran was blamed for the tragedy. It was only during the Gulf War that Libya was falsely linked to the Lockerbie disaster. A potent and vitriolic attack upon Libya began as the Arab state was doggedly pursued in a trial by media, conducted by the British and American establishment. Historically, both British and US intelligence agencies had engineered attempts to undermine Libya, including plots to assassinate Colonel Muammar Qadhafi. The attempts culminated in the April 1986 bombing of the capital Tripoli ordered by the Reagan administration. Dozens of Libyans were killed in the bombing raid including Colonel Qadhafi’s adopted daughter, Hanna.

During the Gulf War, the Anglo-Americans needed Syrian support for its attacks on Baghdad, and so the blame for the Lockerbie disaster was conveniently shifted to Libya. Libya’s involvement in the Lockerbie disaster was fabricated and a stringent regime of crippling international sanctions were imposed against the feisty Arab state. The establishment media ensured that the words “Libya” and “Qadhafi” became synonymous with terrorist activity throughout the world and these dangerously distorted portrayals of Libya have continued to the present day.

The trial of the two Libyan suspects at Camp Zeist in Holland presented a significant problem for Britain and particularly the US. When Libya gave up its citizens for international trial, the onus was on the US to publicly present its evidence of Libya’s guilt. Because there was no evidence, America had to manufacture evidence against Libya, and the outcome of the trial was a compromise of convenience, in which judges yielded to political pressure from the United States.

Historical Information and Background

It took eleven years for the two Libyan nationals accused of placing an explosive device on Pan Am Flight 103 to be bought to trial. Until August 1998, Libya, the UK and the USA were deadlocked over where the trial would take place. Libya had no legal obligation to surrender the suspects, and its accusers argued that any criminal trial should take place either in Scotland or the US. The stalemate was broken only by a compromise whereby the Libyans would be tried in a neutral venue, the Netherlands, before a panel of Scottish judges (with no jury) under Scots criminal law and procedure.

A major police investigation, involving law enforcement officers from around the world, including the FBI, ensued in the wake of the Lockerbie disaster. Investigators concluded that “the detonation of an improvised explosive device led directly to the destruction of the aircraft with the loss of all 259 persons on board and eleven of the residents of the town of Lockerbie.” The Semtex-type plastic explosive was contained in a Toshiba radio-cassette player in a Samsonite suitcase. The investigation found that the explosive device had been carried by Pan Am from Frankfurt to London Heathrow and then transferred to Flight 103. Mechanical failure and pilot error were ruled out.

On 27 November 1991, the Lord Advocate obtained a warrant for the arrest of two Libyans, Abdelbasset Ali Ahmed al-Megrahi and Ali Amin Khalifa Fhimah, on charges of conspiracy to murder and breaches of the Aircraft Security Act of 1982. An indictment in similar terms was handed down by the US District Court of the District of Columbia on the same day.

British and American governments demanded that the two Libyans be surrendered so that they could stand trial in either Scotland or the United States. Libya refused to surrender the suspects because it had no extradition treaties with either the UK or the US and that, in any case, Libyan law prohibited the extradition of its own nationals.

The two governments then went to the UN Security Council, forcing through Resolution 731 of 21 January 1992 requesting the surrender for trial of the suspects. After that request was refused, the Security Council adopted Resolution 748 on 31 March 1992, this time in the form of a demand that Libya renounce terrorism and surrender Al-Megrahi and Fhimah for trial. The resolution gave just over two weeks to comply after which a range of sanctions would be – and in the event were – imposed on Libya. When the two Libyans were still not handed over after a further 18 months, the sanctions were extended and tightened by the Security Council Resolution 883 of 11 November 1993.

In the meantime, Libya applied to the International Court of Justice against the UK and US, stating that the matter was governed by an international agreement, the Montreal Convention of 1971. Libya claimed that it had fulfilled all its obligations under the Convention by detaining the suspects and investigating the matter. The UK and US countered by arguing that the Security Council resolutions overrode the Convention.

The Court decided in October 1992 that the matter was not of sufficient urgency to grant Libya provisional measures of protection. In February 1998 the Court ruled on a number of preliminary objections made by the two governments and declared that it had jurisdiction to deal with the merits of the dispute between Libya and the UK and US.

It was thought that a breakthrough had been made in early 1994, when Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University and Dr. Ibrahim Legwell, the head of the Libyan defence team, agreed on a trial in a neutral venue before a panel of international judges. Britain and America refused to accept this compromise, demanding a trial in either Scotland or the United States.

It became clear at the beginning of 1998 that, despite sanctions, the two Libyans would not be surrendered for trial. On 24 August, the two governments went back to the Security Council proposing that the trial should be held in the Netherlands before a panel of three Scottish judges and with no jury. This offer was broadly accepted by Libya, which reiterated its stance that it was for the two suspects and their legal advisers to decide whether they would appear in the Netherlands for trial.

On 5 April 1999, after some months of discussions on concerns from the accused and their lawyers, Al-Megrahi and Fhimah surrendered for trial in the Netherlands at the Dutch military airbase of Valkenburg, just outside The Hague. They were swiftly extradited to Scottish jurisdiction at Camp Zeist, near Utrecht. Camp Zeist, a former American airbase, had been agreed between the British and Dutch governments as the most suitable site for the trial. On the second of two appearances before Sheriff Principal Graham Cox Q.C., sitting at Camp Zeist, they were committed for trial on 14 April 1999. The trial proper began in 2000 and ended in February 2001. Al-Megrahi was found guilty and Fhimah innocent.

Verdict & Anomalies

The verdict that Abdelbasset al-Megrahi was guilty, and his co-accused Ali Amin Khalifa Fhimah innocent, was not unexpected. The verdict was the outcome of a political show trial. Its aim was to continue to demonise and pressure Libya and to show the power of the US and British governments to punish whatever ‘enemy’ they choose, regardless of evidence.

The Scottish law professor, Robert Black, who devised the trial, called the evidence “very, very weak” and was astonished by the verdict. He had expected both Libyan nationals to be declared innocent. The British families whose relatives were killed in the disaster were also dismayed. They say the trial has not answered the questions that lie at the dark heart of Lockerbie and are demanding a public inquiry.

The sensationalistic reporting surrounding the verdict leaves pressing questions unanswered: why did Al-Megrahi do it? On whose orders did he act? How much was known about the plot to blow up Pan Am 103? None of these questions were answered by the verdict.

The Helsinki Warning

A series of intelligence reports warning of a planned 'Islamic' terrorist attack on a Western passenger plane were passed to Western governments in the months and weeks before the bombing. The so-called “Helsinki warning” was so specific that it said a Pan Am flight travelling from Frankfurt to New York would be targeted. The US took the threat seriously enough to post the warning in its Moscow embassy. The public, however, was never told.

There were also intelligence warnings that claimed a suitcase bomb containing explosives hidden in a Toshiba radio would be the method of getting the device on board the target plane. The Lockerbie bomb matched the reports.

Rescheduling of Flights for Top Brass

There are claims that a series of high-ranking political figures and their relatives were scheduled to get on board Pan Am flight 103 but never did. These include the former South African foreign minister Pik Botha and the son of one of the FBI’s highest ranking investigators, Oliver Ravel. The staff of the American embassy in Moscow had the luxury of not getting on board Flight 103. The public did not.

Other Suspects

The trial dismissed as ‘coincidence’ the activities of the organisation known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The Popular Front, operating in Germany, was found with bombs almost identical to the one which went on board the Pan Am plane. All devices were accounted for, apart from one – possibly the Lockerbie bomb. The PFLP-GC was supported by both Iran and Syria. Although early investigations pointed at the state’s involvement in the bombing, Syria was rehabilitated when it became key to Western foreign policy during the Gulf War. It was initially thought that Syria and Iran plotted the bombing in revenge for a US naval vessel shooting down of an Iranian airbus with massive loss of civilian life.

Intelligence Agency Black Ops

The US government used routes such as Pan Am 103 to run controlled deliveries of drugs from the Middle East into America. This was said to enable agents to follow the route of the drugs and arrest criminals. However, there have been claims from whistleblowers within the US intelligence services that this was actually part of a complicated black operation intended to fund the extreme right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua and send ransom money to Beirut to free American hostages.

The Bomb

The timer that was said at the trial to have caused the explosion could have been set for detonation at any time – anything, in fact, up to 999 hours in advance, ensuring that the plane was downed at sea and all forensic evidence sunk to the bottom. It calls into question what type of timer was used, and who was using it. Why would Libya – the supposed home of international terrorism – use low-grade timers that would expose it to detection? An expert on timers told the trial that the ice-cube timer would have began its countdown seven minutes after take-off. That gives a time before detonation of 37 minutes. Pan Am Flight 103 took off at 6.25pm and exploded 38 minutes later.

Sanctions

The fact that the United States issued a public, rather than a sealed, indictment indicates that US authorities never expected that the accused would ever actually be brought to trial. Instead, US officials saw the indictment itself as a diplomatic tool that would help them persuade members of the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya, thereby furthering their goal of isolating the enemy of the day. UN sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992 as a result of its “refusal” to comply with the investigations into the bombing over Lockerbie in 1988.

The so-called money bomb ended up costing Libya more than $25 billion in lost revenue from 1992 to the present day. The sanctions isolated Libya and the human anguish and distress that they caused cannot be measured.

A special UN report, circulated to members of the Security Council in 1998, revealed the extent of suffering caused by sanctions. In addition to an embargo on international flights, as well as on aircraft and aircraft parts, the sanctions included a ban on arms imports, the downgrading of diplomatic ties with Libya, a freeze on some Libyan assets abroad and a ban on some equipment used at oil transportation terminals and refineries. The sanctions deliberately targeted Libya’s economy and transport infrastructure, and were designed to cause maximum discomfort to children, the elderly, the sick and disabled.

The air blockade of Libya was particularly destructive. Due to the embargo on airline spare parts, a Libyan civilian airliner in 1992 crashed killing all 170 people aboard who were of different nationalities. More than 9,000 medical patients were affected by the air blockade, preventing them from receiving urgent attention overseas. At least 350 patients died en route by road transport to specialist medical care. On many occasions, Western countries were refused permission to export vital medical equipment to Libya.

The Lockerbie verdict of convenience proves that the trial did not achieve either justice or truth. After the verdict was announced, the US continued to pursue Libya, and its leader Colonel Qadhafi. Americans now want law suits against Libya, sanctions against the country continued and criminal charges brought against the Libyan government.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell held a secret meeting with the American families after the trial. Powell suggested that the US wanted leading Libyans prosecuted and hinted that this meant Colonel Qadhafi. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher followed up with an official news briefing stating that “the United States government position, which we’ve reiterated here again and again, which the Secretary conveyed to the families when he talked to them, is that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads…that remains our position.”

Some ten UN Security Council members are said to agree that the sanctions against Libya should be lifted. Other powerful and influential organisations are in agreement that the sanctions should be lifted. They include the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity and the Non-Aligned movement.

Despite pressure to lift sanctions against Libya, the United States and Britain have applied political and economic pressure to UN Security Council members so that action can be delayed. So far, sanctions have only been suspended, not lifted. The United States and Britain have boiled down a series of UN Security Council resolutions to two demands before the sanctions can be lifted entirely – an acceptance of responsibility by Libya for the bombing and the payment of “appropriate” compensation to the victims’ families. The US also continues its own separate sanction regime on all commercial and financial transactions between Tripoli and the United States.

Meanwhile, former South African president Nelson Mandela continues to pursue diplomatic channels on behalf of Libya. Mandela accused the West of shifting the goalposts regarding sanctions in the wake of the Lockerbie trial verdict. He has most recently met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair where he pointed out that Britain had reneged on its undertaking to press for the final lifting of sanctions against Libya.

Appeals

An appeal against conviction has been lodged by Al-Megrahi. His chances of winning an appeal are slim, given that only legal errors and inconsistencies of the Court within the scope of the verdict can be considered for a successful appeal. Chances for the introduction of possible new evidence are strictly limited and in the Lockerbie case virtually impossible. A decision on his appeal is expected by September.

However, Professor Robert Black says there are several basic errors and mistakes that are contained in the verdict that should be able to serve as a vehicle for a successful appeal. Professor Black, who has supported the defense case, said he believed the appeal would “centre on whether the judges were justified in their findings of fact.”

He expects lawyers to maintain the evidence did not prove that an unaccompanied suitcase was dispatched on the morning of the bombing on an Air Malta flight. During the trial, prosecutors presented baggage check-in records and summoned passengers from the flight to show that one bag was not claimed. The bag was alleged to have contained the explosive device. Professor Black also said the appeal would probably challenge a Maltese shopkeeper’s identification of Al-Megrahi as the man he believed purchased the clothing found in the suitcase containing the explosive.

Al-Megrahi’s lawyers had until April to lodge the grounds for appeal. A decision on his appeal is expected by September, and then a date will then be set for the hearing before five Scottish judges. The appeal is expected to be heard at Camp Zeist, and Al-Megrahi will remain in his specially constructed prison at the site until then. If his appeal fails he will be transferred to a Scottish prison – most likely Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow.

The Future

In the latest development, Al-Megrahi has announced that he is willing to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence. He says he wants to take the test live, in front of world television cameras, to be beamed around the world via satellite, to prove his innocence of the charges brought against him. His lawyer in Tripoli has asked that the necessary measures be taken to conduct the test.

The lie detector test would prove that Al-Megrahi is an innocent man who was not offered a fair trial and was convicted in isolation from the rules of justice. It would demonstrate that the rules of justice were badly applied to the point that those who pursued Libya as the guilty party in the Lockerbie disaster should be legally and morally accountable to the world.

Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi condemned the verdict of the Lockerbie bombing trial as an “injustice.” The Libyan leader said the United States and Britain had blamed his country for political reasons and that the investigation before the trial had not been neutral.

The Lockerbie case has now become a racist pretext to prolong nine years of sanctions against Libya, and Al-Megrahi has become a scapegoat to satisfy the families of the victims and justify prolonging the embargo.

Al-Megrahi’s sentence gives the United States a perfect pretext to carry out political and economic blackmail on Libya. The credibility of Western justice, that burned at the altar of Camp Zeist, is now at stake – not Libya’s innocence.

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For further information please visit:
http://www.qadhafi.org
http://www.qadhafi.org/libya

The above article appeared in
New Dawn No. 66 (
May-June 2001)