After 27 years, is a day of justice finally approaching for murdered WPC?
In a rebel camp in Benghazi, Kim Sengupta has a chilling encounter with a man accused of the 1984 murder of Yvonne Fletcher
Friday 25 March 2011
Artillery shells exploded in the distance and ambulance sirens rose through the air as Libya's revolution continued on its violent course. But, at the corner of an army camp in Benghazi, the focus was on a 27-year-old murder in London. Sitting on a white plastic chair on the parade ground, with a balaclava-clad guard training a Kalashnikov on him, Omar Ahmed Sodani recounted how he was accused over the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in the UK. He accused three other men of the crime, of which he is the chief suspect. And he gave a glimmer of hope that he will finally be held to account by saying he would be willing to stand trial in London.
The shocking killing of PC Fletcher in April 1984 led to the siege of the Libyan embassy by armed police, the expulsion of the country's diplomats and a permanent scar on relations between Britain and Libya.
Mr Sodani, the 59-year-old head of the Al Ejanalghoria, Muammar Gaddafi's militia in Benghazi, has been photographed by British officials, according to a senior rebel, after being discovered hiding in a farmhouse 10 days ago. He has been questioned by his captors in the rebel movement not only about the shooting but for allegedly providing reports on Libyan students in London which led to their persecution back home, as well as complicity in human rights abuses.
"Of course I realise I am in a serious position. I don't know if I am a prisoner or not, but I am the head of the Al Ejanalghoria, the revolutionary committee," Mr Sodani said. He spoke haltingly at first, hunched forward into the gray fleece he was wearing, some of his words lost in a strong wind gusting around the parade ground. Occasionally his eyes would dart towards a group of rebel fighters who were watching him intently. "They have interrogated me about the shooting all those years ago," he said. "I have explained to them that I did not do it.
"I do think about the policewoman and her family over time but there is nothing I can do. The shooting should not have happened. It was a mistake, but I had nothing to do with it. For years it was difficult to talk about it, but I can say that I did not kill her."
At the time of the shooting, insisted Mr Sodani, he was under arrest at a London police station. He had tried to get into the embassy, where he acted as a part-time spokesman, while a group of dissidents were holding a demonstration outside and became involved in an altercation with a police officer. "I do not remember which police station it was, but it was near by. By the time I was released the shooting had already taken place," he said. "I was in London, at my home in Ennismore Gardens, for two weeks and then I was expelled. But I have had this accusation against me ever since."
Now he says that he is prepared to face justice. "The police in England never charged me with it even though I was there for two weeks after it took place," he said. "I am being questioned about this again when there is so much happening in Libya. But I am prepared to stand up before a judge, here, or in England, and say that I did not kill her."
PC Fletcher, who was policing the demonstration, was killed by a single shot from the first-floor window of the embassy, called the "people's bureau" by the Libyans. Mr Sodani's fingerprints were discovered in the room near the window frame and, it is claimed, he was seen by one of the protesters outside.
There has never been any proof of who fired the gun. But Mr Sodani's protestations of innocence were met with scepticism in Benghazi. "At the time he was spying on students for his masters in Tripoli," a rebel official said. "He was in the embassy, I remember seeing him at the embassy. He has done a lot of nasty things since he returned here. He will be held accountable for all that as well."
Mr Sodani countered those claims with rising urgency audible in his voice. As he spoke he became louder, as if he would not have many other chances to protest his innocence.
"It is not surprising that my fingerprints were found, I was there all the time helping them put out statements," he said. And, he added, Yvonne Fletcher's death had made little impression. "I cannot remember where the shooting took place, it was more than 25 years ago," he said. "We talked about it afterwards, but we did not talk about it much."
Asked who had carried out the shooting if it was not him, Mr Sodani was reticent at first. "This is something I want to only talk to the police about," he said. Mr Sodani shook his head vigorously saying he did not want to incriminate anyone else. Then, after a moment's silence, he scratched his stubbly beard, leant forward and spread his hands. "There were three names which came up," he said. "Two were students, both called Saleh, and the third person was a diplomat, Abdul Gader. I do not know what has happened to them."
As well as Mr Sodani, Scotland Yard had investigated Abdel-Gader Tuhami, who, it was claimed, had carried out political assassinations on behalf of the Gaddafi regime; Moustapha Maghribi, a military intelligence officer; Ali Jalid, a press officer; and two political attaches, Matouk Matouk and Abdul Ghadir Baghdadi.
After prolonged negotiations, the Libyan regime agreed to pay compensation to PC Fletcher's family. Relations between Tripoli and the UK and US thawed after similar payments were made to the families bereaved in the Lockerbie bombing and the handing over of the two suspects for trial.
Detectives from London flew to Libya a number of times after pledges of co-operation from the authorities. But those trips did not unearth enough evidence to enable prosecutions. Police sources claimed they had been unable to interview a number of crucial witnesses and potential suspects.
According to media reports, Mr Sodani and Mr Matouk had already been executed on the orders of Colonel Gaddafi. "I read that I had been killed and that also we had been given a 'hero's welcome' first. But that did not happen either, there was no welcome.
"They [the regime] said they would look after all my problems, but I had problems with my accommodation and my work and I did not get much help. So, at the end I decided to go back to continue my studies in Europe. I had not been charged by the police with anything, and so I did not see any reason why I shouldn't travel."
While working part time at the embassy in London, Mr Sodani was taking a course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and applied for academic places in Belgium and Germany.
"I had wanted to leave my past behind. But in both Belgium and Germany I was told that I would not be accepted because I was in London during the shooting," he said. "At the end I had to go to East Germany, to Berlin. All I wanted to do was continue with my studies."
Mr Sodani headed a department at Benghazi University after returning to Libya. According to a member of the protest movement "he failed students who did not attend lectures on Gaddafi's Green Book. He was totally with the regime".
Mr Sodani disappeared soon after the 17 February uprising. He was found by rebels searching for members of Gaddafi's force who are said to be trying to infiltrate Benghazi.
After talking for a little more than an hour, Mr Sodani was led away. As he departed, he made one final pronouncement: "I have full confidence in the fairness of the revolution and the revolution's judges. This country would be a far better place in the future than it was in the past." There was no mistaking the fear in his voice.
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