Tuesday, September 01, 2009 

The Maltese double cross part 4.

It would be tempting to dismiss the continuing posturing and political point-scoring over the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi as a late silly season skirmish between parties with nothing else to argue about. Yet this whole dispiriting farce in fact seems to be where politics in this country is going - away from actual policy to focusing on unprovable conspiracies, and also interfering directly with decisions that should be made not on ideological background but on the facts available before the person at the time.

Incredible though it might seem, nothing has actually changed since al-Megrahi was released on the 20th of August. Al-Megrahi is still terminally ill, although some have called into question the prognosis that he has only 3 months or less to live; the decision was still made wholly by the Scottish government, which the documents released today don't even begin to alter; and lastly, the decision was the right one, taken by Kenny MacAskill, and also one which was supported by the prison service and parole board. It remains a nonsense and half gesture that al-Megrahi should have been released to a hospice, as some have suggested, regardless of the probably exaggerated security costs mentioned by MacAskill. The best solution remains that al-Megrahi should have been granted compassionate release, but allowed to continue with his appeal against his conviction in the interests of justice.

Al-Megrahi's dropping of his appeal, which he didn't need to, remains the only real properly unanswered question surrounding the case, and should be the main bone of contention, along with MacAskill's visit to him, which many have deemed unnecessary. Whether al-Megrahi was told that he had to drop his appeal otherwise it would cause major problems with his release is unclear, but it seems likely that it was intimated to him or his lawyers in some way. Likewise, why MacAskill felt that he needed to meet the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing when he could have made his decision without doing so is also currently impenetrable, and is only likely to lead to conspiracy theories.

Instead we're being lead on a wild goose chase, where everyone seems to think that something isn't right, yet no one has found any definitive evidence to prove it. It's quite obvious that since Libya emerged from its pariah status that the UK state and the companies which are only at arms length from it have been salivating at the opportunities which the country promises, and it's equally obvious that Libya, as proven by the documents released today, was intent on getting al-Megrahi back at the earliest opportunity, with the likes of Jack Straw scrabbling around looking for a way for al-Megrahi to be eligible for return under the prisoner transfer agreement. Who knows quite why Jack Straw suddenly came round to the idea that despite previously saying al-Megrahi had to be excluded from the agreement that he could in fact be included in it, although we can probably guess. The government was never going to release anything that directly implicated it; you only have to look at the tenacity with which it is refusing to hand over documentation on Binyam Mohamed's treatment to see that. Instead Straw and the government will doubtless be mildly embarrassed at how easily his mind could be turned, as will Brown and Miliband at how they agreed that they didn't want to see al-Megrahi die in jail, a fairly benign thought to make clear, considering how it's distasteful in the extreme for anyone to die from cancer while in prison, even a mass-murderer, and also knowing how outraged Libya would be.

Yet if anything the documentation makes the Scottish parliament and the SNP look far better than they did originally. They clearly wanted al-Megrahi excluded from the prisoner transfer agreement (PDF), unless they were just going through the motions, something which the UK government decided wasn't going to happen. The machinations of Downing Street look shady; Salmond and MacAskill look pure.

Even if the dealings do look shady, David Cameron is calling for a public inquiry on the grounds of a hypothetical, and demanding to know what the prime minister thinks about a decision which he couldn't make and which is none of his business to interfere with. Cameron isn't the only one playing politics though, as we saw previously: every major party both in Scotland and Westminster with the exception of the SNP has disagreed with the decision, almost certainly in some instances purely because they can, rather than what they would have done were they to make the decision. Somewhere in all of this there is a dying man, denied the opportunity to clear his name, and over 280 families in similar circumstances, some equally uncertain of how their loved ones came to die, others outraged by the decision to release the man in anything other than a box. All are being ignored for as ever, short term political gain. This isn't going to win any elections, it isn't even going to make a difference in opinion polls; it's either, according to your view, bringing a good, humane decision into disrepute, or even further distracting attention from someone who has escaped justice. Politics is as usual struggling to pull itself out of the sewer.

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Monday, August 24, 2009 

The Maltese double cross part 3.

If there's one thing that's worse than releasing a convicted mass murderer on cynical grounds, to help with trade between two countries, it must be to play politics on a decision that was in fact made in good faith on purely humanitarian grounds. The nauseating sight of seeing all three other main parties in Scotland, Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems, all opposing the decision made by Kenny MacAskill, must almost certainly be the Scottish parliament's lowest point since it came into existence. The Tories and Labour may well have opposed the decision if it was theirs to make - their playing to the gallery can never be doubted - but for the Lib Dems to do the same is pure political calculation.

Of course, whether the decision was purely MacAskill's, and how much Westminster knew about what was going on is now being questioned. Ivan Lewis seems to have sent a letter which openly encouraged sending al-Megrahi home, although through the prisoner exchange deal rather than on compassionate grounds, while the dealings between Brown and Mandelson with Gaddafi's both junior and senior now seem to have been far more significant than either first claimed. Further evidence that suggests that Westminster was just as complicit as the SNP is that David Miliband refused to be drawn on what he really thought about al-Megrahi's release, while Gordon Brown has said absolutely nothing on the subject so far. Partially this might well be because they know full well that the SNP would like nothing better to be able to put some of the blame on Labour, but it also seems to reflect the fact that despite all the cant, no one seems to have really wanted al-Megrahi to stay. Dave Osler sums this theory in general up:

In sum, we are faced with a straightforward case of New Labour setting aside any other consideration than what works for major UK companies, building its foreign policy in that light alone, and then passing the buck north of the border. That - this once - its actions were consonant with the correct course is simply felicitous coincidence.

This would be fully in line with New Labour's foreign policy both past and present, yet it still hasn't personally passed the buck north, just rather letting the SNP take the blame whether it is entirely theirs or not.

The continuing outrage from the US however continues to amuse, most hilarious being Robert Mueller and others comment that al-Megrahi's release gives comfort to "terrorists worldwide". Only someone so up themselves and so crimson with unjustified rage could believe that anyone would take comfort from the fact that if they happened to find themselves in Scottish custody and with just three months to live they might just be released. It's instructive to wonder however just how al-Megrahi might have been treated had he found himself in US custody - would he have been threatened with having his children killed, or having his mother sexually assaulted in front of him? Would he have been waterboarded, threatened with a gun, and told that a fellow prisoner had been summarily executed in order to get him to talk? Perhaps just the sheer inhumanity of so-called American justice can be encapsulated by the 7 years that a 12 year old Afghani spent in Guantanamo, having finally been released. It says something about the imperial arrogance of the United States, even under Obama, that it feels it can lecture anyone on how to treat terrorists, although when everyone except the very lowest of the low have been prosecuted for the rendition programme and all the according prison abuses, it perhaps still believes itself to be above the law.

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Friday, August 21, 2009 

The Maltese double cross part 2.

You do have to wonder exactly what both the United States and ourselves expected to happen when al-Megrahi touched down in Libya. He was always going to be given something approaching a warm welcome, mainly because even while the country has paid reparations for the bombing, he is still regarded as innocent.

As almost always, American and Western lives are regarded as having far more worth than those towards the east. You might have thought that some would have mentioned Iran Air Flight 655 today; after all, it's still possible that the Lockerbie bombing was revenge for it. Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes whilst it was inside Iranian territorial waters, killing all 290 on board. The crew of the ship were not even slightly disciplined: they instead received Combat Action Ribbons, while the captain received the Legion of Merit. The Iranians received no apology, the US has never accepted responsibility and also never admitted wrongdoing. It did however eventually pay $131.8 million in compensation. Libya, by contrast, ended up paying more than $2.16 billion for the Lockerbie bombing.

It's also fairly remarkable how in this instance the Scottish government has managed to stand up to American pressure not to release al-Megrahi. How very different to the extradition of Gary McKinnon, where Westminster has refused to intervene and where Denis MacShane even claimed that McKinnon's diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome was a ruse. Similarly, David Miliband continues to refuse to disclose 7 paragraphs of a memo concerning Binyam Mohamed, claiming that if he did the Americans would withdraw intelligence cooperation. It might well be that the Scottish, unlike the UK government as a whole, doesn't have to worry about the relationships which would be affected by playing politics as it were, but it also exposes both the cowardice and the disparity of the "special relationship", as well as just how nasty both Labour and the Conservatives have become, both of whom would have apparently denied a man with three months to live a compassionate release. I'm no fan of the SNP, and their authoritarian tendencies especially over alcohol are repugnant, yet they've made the right decision for exactly the right reasons, the only downside being that al-Megrahi apparently had to drop his appeal for his release to be agreed. Justice may not have been fully served, but this may well have been the best outcome out of a slew of worse ones.

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Friday, August 14, 2009 

The Maltese double cross?

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's decision to drop his appeal against his conviction for the Lockerbie bombing appears to be just the latest stitch-up in the now over 20-year-long search for both justice and the truth in what remains one of the most murky and unexplained terrorist attacks of recent times. In what seems to be an attempt to keep all sides reasonably happy, including the American relatives of the dead who seem to be far more convinced of al-Megrahi's guilt than many of the British relatives, it now appears likely that rather than being released on compassionate grounds, as first thought, al-Megrahi will take advantage of a prisoner transfer agreement signed by Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi. While al-Megrahi could continue with his appeal if he was released due to his terminal illness, the transfer treaty is not applicable while criminal proceedings are still under way. This presumably is aimed at tempering American criticism that someone convicted of mass murder should be freed on compassionate grounds, having shown none whatsoever to his victims.

There are however multiple factors at work here, as there have been from the beginning. Going from being the Mad Dog to being one of those dictators which we can quite literally do business with, Gaddafi's Libya is a key emerging market, especially for the likes of BP, having invested $1bn in the country, prompting the Americans in particular to wonder whether the oil industry which their own government so heavily supports is influencing policy over here also. Most critical however is that none of those involved, apart from al-Megrahi, want the case to be reopened and examined in anything approaching precise detail again. Certainly not the UK or US governments, both of which moved from being almost certain that the perpetrators were not Libyan but rather Palestinians based in Syria, quite possibly funded by Iran, around the time that both countries were needed over more pressing matters concerning Operation Desert Storm, and certainly not the Libyans, who although continuing to cast doubt on their involvement, gritted their teeth and paid an obscene amount of compensation in return for both UN and US sanctions being lifted. These numbers are expected to be earned back in reasonably short order: Libya's Mahmud al-Ftise, the privatisation and investment secretary, says the country has "very big potential".

Al-Megrahi however has just months to live, and with his death it also seems likely that any chance of revisiting the evidence will also perish. This is especially depressing when new information suggests that he suffered what Hans Köchler, the UN's nominated observer of the Scottish trial and appeal in the Netherlands described as a "spectacular miscarriage of justice". Al-Megrahi's lawyers had demanded access to a US government document which cast doubt on the origin of a digital timer which was integral to his conviction, as well as obtaining information that suggested that the key prosecution witness, Tony Gauci, the owner of the Maltese clothes shop where al-Megrahi was supposed to have bought the items which were packed in the suitcase around the bomb, was paid more than $2 million for giving evidence against him. It seems that as a member of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, the body set up by the US after the bombing allegedly told Martin Cadman, one of the relatives of the dead:

Your government and ours know exactly what happened. But they're never going to tell.

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