Archive for August, 2009

Compassion: Either You’ve Got It Or You Haven’t

meSo here we are: the truth is out. The Westminster government had absolutely nothing to do with the release of Abdulbaset Ali Mohmet Al-Megrahi. It was -and always had been- a matter for the Scottish authorities and them alone. Rumours of an oil-for-Megrahi deal a few years ago are, in spite of the copious evidence to support them, untrue. Believe us, London says, when Kenny McAskill announced that this odious mass murderer was getting compassionate release because he was suffering from prostate cancer you could have knocked us over with a feather. How do I know this? How can I be sure that all the reports of a 2007 lucrative contract for the British oil company BP in exchange for a prisoner transfer scheme that would explicitly include Al-Megrahi are at best a mistake and at worst a fabrication? Because Jack Straw tells me so. I am not aware of the UK holding any other Libyans than Al-Megrahi or of UK nationals languishing in Libyan prison cells, but there you are. Libya now has its native son back and BP can drill for oil off the Libyan coast. Pure coincidence, nothing to do with us, mate.Labour+Holds+Annual+Party+Conference+oVmV6BOESNfl

I have a high regard for Jack Straw. Here is a man who, in spite of tremendous difficulties (such as having been born without a backbone, a set of immutable principles and a moral compass) has risen through the ranks of the Labour Party to hold a succession of exalted posts. They are, in order: Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Lord Privy Seal, leader of the House of Commons and, most recently, Lord Chancellor and the relatively new invention Secretary of State for Justice. Not bad for a barrister who read law at Leeds University. The absence of a spine allowed him to complete  the contortion that turned him from a left wing rabble rouser into the man who won praise from Margaret Thatcher for his draconian anti-terrorism policies, including a plan to reduce, in certain cases, the right to trial by jury. His double-jointedness made it possible to express misgivings about the Iraq war and his great confidence in the Iraqi judicial system while still remaining a loyal vassal of whoever was leading the Labour Party and becoming uncomfortably close to then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Where others who were opposed to the war either quit right away (Robin Cook) or after a period of examining the lie of the land (Clare Short), Jacko kept his nose clean. Why walk out in a fit of principle when there was still so much good work to be done? (A similar ability to ‘go with the flow’ has been perceived in the once ubiquitous Margaret Beckett).

Had the release of Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds not been a matter for Scotland and Scotland only (just joking; is there still anybody who believes that?) there is every chance that Jack Straw would have joined Kenny McAskill in his passionate defence of certain humanitarian principles held sacred in the UK but sadly alien to the rest of the world. For in the arena of soft-hearted mercy when dealing with suffering miscreants the Secretary of State for Justice yields to no man. Who doesn’t remember his outpouring of compassion in 2000 when, ignoring a spate of international requests for extradion and criminal prosecution, he allowed the Chilean dictator, mass-murderer and close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher Augusto Pinochet, who was said to be too ill to stand trial, to return to Chile? Pinochet cheeckily chucked aside his walking stick on arrival at Santiago airport and lived on for another six years. What chance of Al-Megrahi doing the same? None, I think.

Lockerbie+Bomber+Abdelbaset+Al+Megrahi+Released+SpoisLhTZYrlPersonally I don’t give a monkey’s about the murky goings-on that led to Al-Megrahi’s repatriation. No one emerges from this tale with any credit, except the man himself. The Scots use the cover of compassion to hide their anxiety at what might have become public in the course of Megrahi’s now dropped appeal; Westminster plays dumb in a matter in which it exercised full control; Americans bluster and cry blue murder without caring whether the guy they want to rot in jail is actually guilty or not. Khadaffi prances on the international stage as if nothing untoward ever happened. The Libyan is now at home and I hope that, like Pinochet, he lives on for a good spell.

Meanwhile, the real murky deal that needs light shed on it is the one that led to Al-Megrahi’s appearance before a politically manipulated court in Camp Zeist. The details of that bear direct relevance to his guilt or, as I am convinced, innocence. This latest kerfuffle over his release isn’t really worth the candle.

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Al-Megrahi: An Innocent Man, Left To Rot

meWhen, as latest news reports suggest, Lockerbie convict Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi will sometime this week be set free from a Scottish jail, an administrative end will have come to one of the worst, most shameful miscarriages of justice the world has seen in recent years, or possibly ever. I say ‘administrative’ because, with al-Megrahi’s health effectively ruined through medical neglect (not many prison inmates under constant obervation  nowadays face death from untreated prostate cancer) the injustice will follow him right into his unnecessarily early grave. Forget any bullshit about this being an act of compassion: sending him home to Libya now that his demise seems imminent will save the Scottish authorities further unwanted expense and a flurry of equally unwanted bad publicity.

What angers me most about this hideous affair is that, at the time of the ridiculous show trial in Holland’s Camp Zeist, it was already clear that there was no evidence available that would stand up in any normal western court. What clinched the case against al-Megrahi was the testimony of a dodgy Maltese shopkeeper with a tenuous grip on the truth and a poor recollection of facts. (The shopkeeper’s name, by the way, was Gauci, which just happens to be the surname of a hot operatic favourite of mine, soprano Miriam Gauci. I hope fervently that they’re not related, but Malta is a small country.) The ‘evidence’ that sent al-Megrahi to his doom, under examination, wouldn’t have convicted a jaywalker. Not surprising, because everything, absolutely everything, to do with the case militates against al-Megrahi’s guilt.al-Megrahi

I am aware that, in the wake of the terrible act of terrorism against the PanAm airliner -270 innocent dead is a ghastly toll- emotions ran high, both in the UK and the United States. Acts like that, I fully agree, must not go unpunished and the sooner the guilty are collared, the easier it is for the relatives of the victims to find closure and get on with their lives. Even at the time, rumours were buzzing around the world of western intelligence that Iran was most likely involved. After all, five months earlier a US warship in the Gulf had shot down an Iranian civilian airliner; by mistake, as Washington insisted. That might -some say ‘should’- have fulfilled the prime requirement in proving a criminal’s guilt: establishing a motive. The other requirement, opportunity, did not enter the equation at all for, as we all know, in the world of international terrorism there’s always a way where there’s a will. Trouble was: Iran is rich in oil and militarily powerful. Any retribution for Lockerbie would inevitably be costly, dangerous and time-consuming. Somebody mentioned Syria as a possibility: no good, same story, except the oil. An easier, quicker fix was obviously needed.

I have no idea who it was that hit on the Libyan variant (dammit, I can’t know everything) but what’s certain is that it had, from a western point of view, obvious merits. Libya had oil, its leader Khadaffi, after exchanging a series of blows with the United States, seemed keen to come in from the cold and become a respectable world leader and car designer, there was a deal on there. All the west needed was some names, preferably names of people professionally involved in international skulduggery. Where better to look than the Libyan intelligence service? We all know what happened next. Two names were produced, Khadaffi -after some hemming and hawing for public consumption- handed them over and justice was on its way. Next came the Camp Zeist trial, where a bunch of superannuated Scottish dodderers sat in judgement as western (read: American) prosecutors pulled the wool over their eyes. So there we were, in rural Holland: two defendants, a battery of international journalists, a prosecution that knew what it was after, a bench that was half asleep most of the time and not a shred of serious evidence. Sorry, I take that back. There was serious evidence that Iran was involved, but it was not admitted in court. (The fact that, only recently, al-Megrahi had instructed is legal team to publish the evidence may well have caused the sudden upsurge of ‘compassion’ that has come over the Scottish authorities.)

al-MegrahiIt didn’t matter, of course. The two men in the dock, in the absence of support from their own government (which had sold them down the river) didn’t stand a chance of justice. After all, who was going to complain? Not Khadaffi, who had international respectability on his mind. Not anyone, in fact, except a few independent minds around the world who saw the whole thing as an exercise in cynicism, a convenient stitch-up of a couple of nameless, unlamented patsies. Their views appeared, in print and on the internet, but they were not heeded. I was one of those and still am.

al-MegrahiIn the most bizarre twist of all, al-Megrahi’s co-defendant was found not guilty and allowed to return home. That left the ultimate, familiar outcome: the world was told that the bombing of the PanAm airliner over Lockerbie in 1988 was the work of a single man, one with no previous record of terrorist activity or intent, a man with no accomplices, not doing his government’s bidding; a man with no discernible personal motive, a man implicated by no solid evidence of any kind: forensic, circumstantial or even testimonial. He had no reason for doing it, yet he did it; that’s what we’re supposed to believe. Do they think we are all stark raving mad?

Abdelhaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, you don’t know me but I want you to know that I am your friend. Hilary Clinton may want you to rot in jail (there are votes to be had in America for those who take that position), but I know you are innocent. My most fervent hope right now is that, insh’Allah, you will still somehow recover from your illness and live out your life in the bosom of your family.

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