The decision of the three judges sitting in the special Scottish court in Zeist, Holland, to convict one Libyan for responsibility of the Lockerbie bombing, and to acquit the other, may cynically (but realistically) be seen as a politically astute judgement, giving every party involved some ground for satisfaction.
The judgement came more than 12 years after Pan Am Flight 103, en route from Frankfurt to New York, exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie late on December 21, 1988. All 259 people on board were killed, along with 11 villagers on the ground where the wreckage of the aircraft landed. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was convicted of responsibility for the atrocity, and al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah was acquitted on the grounds that there was no sound evidence against him.
The balanced judgement succeeded in creating the impression that the court was neither biased in either direction, nor reached its conclusion on the basis of any prearranged deal, instead genuinely making its decision on the basis of the evidence. The conviction of al-Megrahi satisfied the West and justified the long extrajudicial campaign to have the two men surrendered for trial. The acquittal of Fhimah gave Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi something to celebrate (although this celebration was tempered by the conviction of al-Megrahi). Qaddafi’s claim that he could present evidence that would prove al-Megrahi’s innocence was quickly exposed, when his much-hyped speech on February 5 proved a damp squib.
Nonetheless, lawyers representing al-Megrahi have lodged an appeal against his conviction, which will be heard by a panel of five Scottish judges at some stage over the next few months. The show is not over by any means, as observers believe that the case against him was weak and that his appeal may well succeed. The US and British governments, however, have taken his conviction as final and immediately demanded that Libya accept full responsibility for the bombing, pay compensation to the relatives of those killed, and denounce terrorism before the international sanctions against Libya, which were suspended when the men were handed over for trial in 1999, can be lifted.
Qaddafi has grounds for his anger at this position. These were conditions written into the UN sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992 for refusing to hand the two men over at that time. In 1998, when agreement was reached for their trial, however, the deal included terms that the trial would mark the end of the matter: no further claims would be pursued against Libya, regardless of the trial’s outcome.
Qaddafi’s understanding of this point has been confirmed by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who in 1998 played a crucial role in nogotiating the agreement. Speaking at the University of Cape Town on February 5, he accused Western governments of “shifting the goalposts” by making further demands before lifting the international sanctions.
The demands that the West is making are ones that Qaddafi cannot afford to accept. They appear designed to ensure that Libya remains an international bogeyman for the foreseeable future. However, it remains to be seen whether the suspension of the sanctions will be lifted; ie. the sanctions re-implemented. This would require the agreement of the UN security council, and other members — particularly France — are known to oppose the US’s campaign against Libya.
The confusion and political legerdemaine surrounding the conviction of al-Megrahi are entirely in keeping with the events of the 12 years leading up to it. Immediately after the bombing, the investigation of the crash-site was taken over by American agents, in clear breach of normal British procedures. During the next three years, the US variously blamed Palestinian groups, Syria, Iran and Libya for the bombing, depending on what was politically convenient at the time. Finally, in November 1991, the US and Britain announced charges against al-Megrahi and Fhimah and demanded that Libya surrender them for trial, despite the fact that neither country has extradition agreements with Libya, and so there was no legal basis for this demand.
The next year, the UN security council imposed partial economic sanctions against Libya for refusing to accede to the illegal US and British demands. The results of the sanctions were mixed. They are estimated to have cost Libya $18 billion, but failed to destroy its economy, which has performed relatively well in this period. The 1998 deal, which arguably involved greater concessions from the US and Britain than from Libya, was reached not because Libya had been brought to its knees but because the situation had reached a stalemate that both sides wished to end.