Thursday, August 20, 2009

Al-Megrahi Gets Hero's Welcome

The New York Times

August 21, 2009

Lockerbie Convict Returns to Jubilant Welcome


Over ferocious American objections, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie jet bombing, flew home to a jubilant welcome in Libya on Thursday night after the Scottish government ordered his release on compassionate grounds.

Mr. Megrahi, 57, a former Libyan intelligence agent, had served 8 years of a 27-year minimum sentence on charges of murdering 270 people in Britain’s worst terrorist episode.

Widely forecast in British news reports over the past week, his release angered many Americans whose relatives died in the bombing, leaving them to confront anew the agony and anguish of loss and to question the notion of justice that allowed a man convicted of murderous acts, which he always denied, to walk free.

“Compassionate release on the face of it is insane for a convicted mass murderer,” said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died when a bomb smuggled onto Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. “For the families we have this thing that is so horrible to live with anyway, and now we have to live with this.”

A “tiny slice of justice,” she said, had been lost.

Ignoring American demands that Mr. Megrahi not be celebrated as a hero returning to his homeland, hundreds of young Libyans were bused to the military airport in Tripoli to welcome him home, cheering and waving Libyan and Scottish flags as he sped off in a convoy of white vehicles.

On the flight from Scotland, Mr. Megrahi was accompanied by Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, stamping an official imprimatur on his release and reinforcing the official Libyan view that Mr. Megrahi was a scapegoat used by the West to reinforce its depiction of Libya as a pariah state.

The welcome was another slight for Washington, which had sought strenuously to persuade Libya not to permit a hero’s welcome for Mr. Megrahi and had opposed his release.

Still protesting his innocence and offering “sincere sympathy” to the families of those who died in the bombing, Mr. Megrahi was granted his freedom under the terms of Scottish laws permitting the early release of prisoners with less than three months to live. The Scottish authorities and his lawyers say he has terminal prostate cancer.

President Obama, echoing widespread anger and disappointment in the United States over the decision, called Mr. Megrahi’s release “a mistake” and said the government was holding further discussions on the matter.

“We’re now in contact with the Libyan government and want to make sure that if, in fact, this transfer has taken place, that he’s not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest,” Mr. Obama said in a radio interview.

After his release from Greenock prison in Scotland, Mr. Megrahi traveled in a white van flanked by police cars to Glasgow Airport, where a special V.I.P.-configured Airbus plane from Libya’s Afriqiyah airline awaited him. Hunched but unassisted, he climbed the airplane steps wearing a white tracksuit and carrying a cane. By the time he arrived in Tripoli, Mr. Megrahi had changed into a dark business suit.

His expression as he left Scotland was obscured by a white baseball cap pulled low over his forehead and a white scarf, which he held across the lower part of his bespectacled face. It was the first the world had seen of him in years, and some Americans took the vision of him walking free as a confirmation of their nightmares.

“He’s getting away with it; that’s exactly what I thought,” said Rosemary Wolfe, whose stepdaughter Miriam was killed in the bombing and who watched Mr. Megrahi’s departure on television Thursday.

“It was a helpless, hopeless feeling. He’s going back to his family, but Miriam will never be able to come back to us,” she said.

In a statement issued by his lawyers after he left prison, Mr. Megrahi insisted one more time on his innocence. “And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do,” he said.

“To those victims’ relatives who can bear to hear me say this: they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered,” the statement said.

At a news conference earlier, Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill announced that Mr. Megrahi, “convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

With his release, Mr. MacAskill said, Mr. Megrahi “now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.”

“It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule,” he said. “It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”

But even that conclusion, to many Americans, remains a matter for debate. While Mr. MacAskill said medical evidence supported it, Denice Rein, whose husband, Mark, the treasurer of Salomon Brothers, died in the bombing, said that she wanted the medical records released and independently verified.

In any event, the notion of compassion sat uneasily with many American families. Donald Malicote, whose son, an Army specialist, and daughter-in-law were killed in the bombing, learned about the release while watching television at his home in Lebanon, Ohio. “He didn’t show our kids any mercy, so I have a hard time feeling compassion for him,” Mr. Malicote said. “He killed a lot of young kids. I just can’t forgive a man for that.”

The bombing killed 259 people on the Pan Am jet and 11 on the ground. Of the dead, 189 were Americans.

Jeannine Boulanger, of Shrewsbury, Mass., whose 21-year-old daughter, Nicole, died, said Mr. Megrahi’s eight years in prison amounted to about a dozen days for each victim. “Is that justice?” she asked.

“It’s not about compassion,” she said. “It’s about what’s in the best interest of the countries.”

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of seven senators to protest Mr. Megrahi’s early release, said in a statement that “the news today from Glasgow turned the word ‘compassion’ on its head.”

Many British families have said they accept Mr. Megrahi’s protestations of innocence and support his release.

But Mr. Megrahi’s return to Libya stirred political controversy in Britain, some of it directed at the Labour government in London, which critics accused of encouraging Libya to press for Mr. Megrahi’s release as part of a broader reconciliation in recent years that has included lucrative oil contracts from the Qaddafi government for BP, one of Britain’s largest companies.

David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, condemned the decision to set Mr. Megrahi free. “I think it’s wrong, and it’s the product of some completely nonsensical thinking,” he said. “This man was convicted of murdering 270 people and he showed no compassion to them, and they weren’t allowed to go home to die with their relatives in their own beds.”

John F. Burns contributed reporting from London.

The Lockerbie bomber flew out of Britain yesterday as a dying man deserving of compassion — and landed in Libya a national hero.

A crowd of thousands, many waving Scottish flags, gathered at Tripoli airport to welcome Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi as he stepped down from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s private jet to the strains of patriotic music.

He had changed from a white tracksuit and baseball cap into a dark suit and tie during the flight and was leaning on a gold-rimmed walking stick as he emerged from the aircraft to be hugged by Colonel Gaddafi’s son. He was then taken in a motorcade to the city centre, where the main square was lit up in green and blue in preparation for a celebration that included a feast and laser show. The pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera reported that al-Megrahi’s car was held up along the way by the throng.

In the city centre groups of young men, many in white baseball caps like the one al-Megrahi was wearing as he left Glasgow or T-shirts bearing his face, dashed excitedly from one side of the square to the other trying to catch a glimpse of him.

The terrorist had served less than eight years of a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people. He was released from Greenock prison near Glasgow on the orders of Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, on the basis of medical reports that he had terminal cancer and had less than three months to live. Within the hour, al-Megrahi had left the country. The flight was diverted away from the town of Lockerbie as a mark of respect for the families of the victims.

Mr MacAskill said that he had consulted widely before making the decision, but the White House said that it was a mistake, the US Attorney-General said that it did not serve the interests of justice and families of the American victims were outraged. President Obama said: “We are now in contact with the Libyan Government to make sure that he is not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest.”

Minutes later al-Megrahi was being fĂȘted in Tripoli as music blared from loudspeakers and Green Revolution flags fluttered in the air. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said: “At this historic moment, I would like to thank the Scottish government for its courageous decision and understanding of a special human situation”. The Arab League welcomed the release “taking into consideration his serious health condition”.

Al-Megrahi himself issued a statement saying that he was “obviously very relieved to be leaving my prison cell at last”. He called his conviction “nothing short of a disgrace”, adding: “This horrible ordeal is not ended by my return to Libya, it may never end for me until I die. Perhaps the only liberation for me will be death.”

His wife said that she was very, very happy at his release, which comes just in time for the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan. “I am overjoyed; it is indescribable. It is a great moment which we have been waiting for for nine years.”

Mr MacAskill said that the justice system demanded that judgment be imposed but that compassion be available. He accepted medical advice that al-Megrahi had terminal prostate cancer: “Mr al-Megrahi faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court in any jurisdiction in any land could revoke or overrule.”

Downing Street maintained its stance that the decision was one for the SNP-led Scottish government, but David Cameron described the grounds for release as completely nonsensical. “If there’s a view that the conviction is in some way unsafe, then the proper process is an appeal and the presentation of new evidence. But if this is about genuine release on compassionate grounds, I think it is wrong.”

Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “If I was First Minister Megrahi would not be going back to Libya. The decision to release him is wrong.” The Scottish Parliament is to be recalled on Monday to discuss the case.

Al-Megrahi abandoned his appeal against conviction last week amid allegations that a top-level cover-up had been agreed to prevent the exposure of a grave miscarriage of justice.

Scottish govt defends Lockerbie bomber's release

By BEN McCONVILLE, Associated Press Writer
1 hr 8 mins ago

EDINBURGH, Scotland – Scotland's justice minister on Monday defended his much-criticized decision to free the Lockerbie bomber, as the U.S. State Department said that though it disagreed "passionately" the move would not affect relations between America and Britain.

The Scottish administration has faced unrelenting criticism from the both the U.S. government and the families of American victims of the 1988 airline bombing since it announced last week it was freeing Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The terminally ill al-Megrahi, who has prostate cancer, returned to his native Libya on Thursday, where he was greeted by crowds waving Libyan and Scottish flags.
The United States will stand by Britain, even though it believes the decision was a mistake, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

"We made it quite clear that we disagreed passionately with this decision, because we thought it sent the wrong signal to, not only the families, but also to terrorists, But I really discourage you from thinking that we necessarily have to have some kind of tit-for-tat retaliation because of it. I just don't see it — not with Britain. Not with Scotland either," Kelly said.

Kelly's words follow days of criticism from top U.S. officials.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill doggedly defended the decision Monday, but said Libya had broken a promise by giving the convicted terrorist a hero's welcome. Scottish lawmakers came back from summer vacation a week early for an emotional debate on the issue.

Britain, meanwhile, scrapped a trade visit to Libya by Prince Andrew amid controversy over the release.

MacAskill said the warm homecoming for al-Megrahi breached assurances from Libyan authorities that "any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion."
"It is a matter of great regret that Mr. (al-) Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner," MacAskill told the Scottish parliament. "It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie."
A member of the Libyan government's negotiating team who took part in the talks about al-Megrahi's release told The Associated Press that the Libyan government had not organized al-Megrahi's reception and had not broken any agreement with Scotland. The official did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

He said no government official met al-Megrahi at the airport and pointed out that Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who traveled with al-Megrahi on the plane, is not a government official.

The official said the crowd that threw rose petals and cheered al-Megrahi at the airport heard of his return through the media and spontaneously chose to greet him, he said.

By Libyan standards, al-Megrahi's welcome was relatively muted. Hundreds of people waiting in the crowd for his plane were rushed away by authorities at the last minute, and the arrival was not aired live on state TV.

Back in Scotland, MacAskill said his decision to free al Megrahi "was not based on political, economic or diplomatic considerations."

"This was my decision and my decision alone," he said. "I stand by it and I live with the consequences."

The decision has prompted calls for a trade boycott of Scotland and widespread criticism of the nationalist government in Edinburgh.

Scottish people were ashamed "to see our flag flying to welcome a convicted bomber home," Labour legislator Iain Gray told the parliament.

In a strongly worded letter to the Scottish government, FBI director Robert Mueller said al-Megrahi's release gave comfort to terrorists, while Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said releasing the bomber was "obviously a political decision."

The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed all 259 people on the plane — most of them American — and 11 people on the ground. Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, is the only person convicted of the bombing.

Compassionate release is a regular feature of the Scottish system when a prisoner is near death. Of the 31 applications over the last decade, 24 prisoners have been freed on compassionate grounds in Scotland, including al-Megrahi. Another seven applications were turned down because the medical evidence did not support the claim.
Top British cancer specialists say al-Megrahi has less than three months to live.
Scotland is part of Britain but has its own parliament — established in 1999 — with power over large areas of policy, including justice, health and education. The British Parliament in London retains primacy on all matters relating to Britain as a whole, such as defense, energy and foreign relations.

Scotland's nationalist administration has vowed to hold a referendum on full independence from Britain. Some lawmakers have called for MacAskill to resign over his decision. No vote was taken during Monday's 75-minute session, but some Scottish politicians say they will seek a confidence vote when the parliament begins its fall session next week — one that could potentially bring down the minority government.
The British government has fiercely refuted claims that al-Megrahi's release was intended to boost business ties between Britain and Libya, which has vast oil reserves. Such suspicions were heightened after Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi thanked Brown and Queen Elizabeth II by name for "encouraging" the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the suggestion there had been a deal was "completely implausible and actually quite offensive."

Kelly said the U.S. was not aware that any commercial interests between Britain and Libya played a role in the decision to release al-Megrahi.

"You have multiple senior British officials who have denied this. And I will take what they said on face value," Kelly said.

He warned that the U.S. relationship with Libya now depended in part on how Libya handles the situation.

"We had made it quite clear to the Libyan government, both publicly and privately, that we're going to be watching very closely how they receive this man," he said. "And if they continue to lionize him in a public fashion, that these kinds of public demonstrations can only have a profoundly negative effect on our relationship."
Prince Andrew has visited Libya several times in his role as a British trade ambassador and his office said last week that a trip for next month was in the planning stages. But Buckingham Palace said Monday there were no plans now for the prince to visit Libya.

A spokesman for Brown said al-Megrahi's release was "a uniquely sensitive and difficult decision" — and one for Scottish officials.

Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless in London and Khaled El-Deeb in Tripoli contributed to this report.


New York Times


Published: August 24, 2009

LONDON — The uproar in Britain over the release of the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing gathered momentum on Monday, with critics saying at an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, had brought shame on Scotland and jeopardized its relations with the United States.

Oya Newspaper, via Agence France-Presse

In a handout photo, Libyans greeted Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi in Tripoli late on Thursday.

The Lede: Scotland Defends Bomber’s Release (August 24, 2009)

With Libya Ties Strained, U.S. Has Limited Options (August 25, 2009)

Times Topics: Pan Am Flight 103

The fury in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, echoed indignation in the United States from President Obama; the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III; prominent senators; and relatives of those who died on Pan Am Flight 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 270 people, including 189 Americans. The release has developed into the most abrasive issue between Britain and the United States in years, and, opposition critics said in Edinburgh, one that could damage Scotland’s tourism and investment from the United States.

Annabel Goldie, of the opposition Conservatives, said the minority government of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, could have spared the country the opprobrium by transferring the prisoner, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, to a safe house or a hospice in Scotland, where he could have received care for the terminal cancer that Mr. MacAskill cited in freeing him. Mr. Megrahi, 57, a former Libyan intelligence agent, was flown to Libya from a Scottish prison on Thursday. The compassion cited by Mr. MacAskill in justifying his decision could have been better served by keeping him in Scotland, Ms. Goldie said, than by having “a convicted terrorist being feted as a hero in Libya to a backdrop of waving Saltires,” Scotland’s blue-and-white flag.

Mr. MacAskill sought to fend off the attacks, saying Mr. Megrahi’s release was approved solely because of his illness and not because of “economic considerations” relating to Libyan oil deals, as opposition politicians and newspaper editorials in Britain have suggested. The government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown ducked for cover, declining to say whether it supported the decision to return Mr. Megrahi home.

With Mr. Brown on vacation and the British Parliament in summer recess, the government seemed intent on trying to keep at a distance from the turmoil in the hope that the issue would lose its potency by the time Parliament returns in the fall. A prominent Conservative lawmaker, Liam Fox, described Mr. Brown’s role since the bomber’s release as that of “the invisible man.”

With his silence, Mr. Brown has appeared eager to draw a veil over negotiations with Libya in the past five years in which, it was previously acknowledged, oil deals and Mr. Megrahi’s release were central to the agenda. Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, said in a television interview on the plane carrying Mr. Megrahi home that his release was “always on the negotiating table” when oil and gas deals were discussed with Britain. Colonel Qaddafi promised when he met Mr. Megrahi that Britain would be rewarded for his release.

Peter Mandelson, Britain’s business minister and a close aide to Mr. Brown, said over the weekend that he had discussed Mr. Megrahi twice this year in meetings with the younger Mr. Qaddafi. But Mr. Mandelson said there was no quid pro quo linking oil deals to the release.

But his assertions came into doubt after The Sunday Times of London reported details of a letter that it said Ivan Lewis, a junior Foreign Office minister, had written to Mr. MacAskill two weeks before the release saying there was no legal impediment to sending Mr. Megrahi to Libya under a prisoner transfer agreement that Britain and Libya ratified in April.

“I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application in accordance with the provisions of the prisoner transfer agreement,” Mr. Lewis wrote, according to the newspaper.

In his remarks to the Scottish Parliament, Mr. MacAskill hinted at something that many critics of the Brown government had suggested — that it hid behind a veil of ambiguity and evasion in its dealings with the Scottish authorities, so as to encourage Edinburgh to approve the bomber’s return home under the prisoner transfer agreement without Mr. Brown and his ministers having to take responsibility for the decision themselves.

Mr. MacAskill said he had received a perfunctory answer this summer when he wrote to Jack Straw, justice minister in the Brown government, asking the government to “make representations or provide information” regarding the proposed release. “They declined to do so,” he said. “They simply informed me that they saw no legal barrier to transfer and that they gave no assurances to the U.S. government at the time. They declined to offer a full explanation. I found that highly regrettable.”

He contrasted the British reply with what he had been told weeks before his decision when he met with American officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who as deputy attorney general oversaw issues relating to the Megrahi trial before it began in 2001. He said Mr. Holder had been “adamant” that Britain had given Washington assurances that any sentence imposed at the trial would be served in Scotland, and that he had been told the same by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. MacAskill said that the conflicting responses in London and Washington left him uncertain as to what had been agreed to by the two governments, but that he was convinced that “the American families and government had an expectation, or were led to believe, that there would be no prisoner transfer and the sentence would be served in Scotland.” He said “many of the American families” had spoken of “the comfort they placed on these assurances” when he talked with them in a video conference before his decision.

Accordingly, he said, he had decided to deny Mr. Megrahi’s application for a prisoner transfer and to approve his return to Libya under compassionate grounds, which he described as an act of “mercy” for a dying man.

1 comment:

Bill Kelly said...

Published: August 21, 2009

PARIS — Sometime back, a reporter visiting Libya made a phone call to an American there whom the authorities wanted to keep quiet, in public at least. Almost before the reporter had lowered the handset, the phone rang. If the journalist persisted with his overtures, said an official who had secretly monitored the conversation, he would be dealt with by “the Libyan method.”

There was no ambiguity about what that might mean. In the 1980s, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi ran what Dana Moss, an expert on the relationship between Libya and the United States, called “a rogue regime which used terror as its main tactic of foreign policy.”

The tally of atrocities stretched from the bombing of the La Belle nightclub in Berlin in 1986 to the downing of airliners. Even before the visit to Tripoli, the same reporter had met in Hamburg with a German gun runner who freely admitted arranging a shipment of Libyan weapons destined for the Irish Republican Army.

But nothing in that catalogue of terror paralleled the events of Dec. 21, 1988, when a bomb smuggled onto Pan Am Flight 103 exploded above the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. Of the dead, 189 were American.

The event spread shock, trauma, grief and horror. Its scars cut deep into the families of the dead, turning them into victims, too. Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, who was 17 when her father was killed in the bombing, said recently, “there is a piece of me and everyone else in my family that died that day with him.”

The attack symbolized the very worst of what Colonel Qaddafi has since tried to disavow. And when the only person convicted in the bombing, the former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was released early from a Scottish prison Thursday on compassionate grounds, it raised many questions, not just about the nature of justice, but also about Colonel Qaddafi’s ambitions and the doggedness with which he has sought to shed the outlaw image he brandished in the 1980s.
In the West’s minuet with Libya, though, there were two other unstated but powerful elements — realpolitik and money.

The lure of Libya’s oil and gas reserves has blunted the Western appetite to re-open the Lockerbie case, particularly when Colonel Qaddafi is pursuing his own long quest for a place on the global stage. The release of Mr. Megrahi could hardly have been timed more felicitously for the aggrandizement of the Libyan leader. He is already president of the African Union, and in September he plans to address the United Nations General Assembly.

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup that brought Colonel Qaddafi to power. Above all, said Ms. Moss, he “sees himself as a world leader and wants to be acknowledged as a world leader.”

The “Libyan method” may have evolved over the years, in other words, but the underlying objective has endured.