Gaddafi junior comes out of the shadows to take the credit

The man who paraded Megrahi has played a pivotal role in ending Libya's isolation.
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The Independent Online

It was the homecoming of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, but in the event he was relegated to the part of mere supporting actor. Dressed in white and with his arms aloft at the top of the aircraft's stairs, the author of the Libyan victory, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was not going to allow his key role in the affair to be forgotten.

The spotlight remained glued to the son of Libya's President as he directed Megrahi's movements and ushered the television cameras up the stairs for a close-up.

The personal triumph being claimed on the runway of a Libyan military base came in stark contrast to the official line that the release had been standard Scottish judicial procedure. For the controversial return to Tripoli of the man convicted of murdering 270 people was the culmination of a personal mission by Saif al-Islam, who swore to bring Megrahi home last year.

Africa's longest serving president, Muammar al-Gaddafi, was conspicuous by his absence yesterday. In the hours preceding the landing the Libyan President had received a letter from Gordon Brown urging him to "act with sensitivity", while US President Barack Obama had told Libyan authorities not to welcome the prisoner but to "place him under house arrest".

Libya's Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Baghdadi opted not to comment on the release at a press conference on Thursday.

In the face of this official silence, the credit for the diplomatic coup was left to Colonel Gaddafi's heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam. The only television pictures of the homecoming seen in Libya were highlights broadcast on a channel strongly connected to the 37-year- old engineer which showed him delivering his compatriot to a cheering crowd.

The spectacle was causing acute embarrassment in Scotland where the devolved administration had sought to portray the release as a purely legal issue. In public at least the matter was being left entirely to the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. But the political ramifications had been endlessly debated in the top echelons of the Scottish National Party where it was felt that they had inherited an "impossible situation".

The April ratification by the British Government of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya was followed almost immediately with a request from Tripoli for Megrahi to be handed over.

With a prisoner exchange rejected as unacceptable to many of the families of victims and the US government, a second line of attack, a 1994 provision allowing compassionate licence to Scottish ministers, was brought into play.

The issue of compassionate release had been discussed at a meeting between Scottish and Libyan officials on 6 July when it was made clear that an application would most likely succeed. By 24 July, Megrahi had applied.

This compromise allowed the Labour Government in London to vent its anger at its SNP-led rival over the border and distance itself from the release – despite the facilitating role it had played in the prisoner-exchange deal.

As with so many aspects of Libya's reconciliation with the West, the timing of the latest move raised serious questions. Megrahi's release coincides with the opening festivities in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Libya's revolution, which falls in September. But there is a limited amount to celebrate. The poor living standards most Libyans endure have in the past been blamed on UN sanctions, but now that excuse is gone. Gaddafi Snr's grandstanding at the head of the African Union has been met with grumbling at home where massive oil revenues have failed to deliver improved roads, hospitals, schools and institutions. Conceding political ownership of Megrahi's homecoming to Saif al-Islam appeared calculated to deflate mounting domestic criticism of his father and, furthermore, to raise a clamour for Saif to withdraw his announcement last year that he had retired from politics.

While the Scottish decision to release the bomber on compassionate grounds appeared sudden, it followed a round of high-level shuttle diplomacy carried out by Gaddafi's second-born son.

The compulsion to secure privileged access to Libya's enormous energy reserves has seen political leaders from Tony Blair to Nicolas Sarkozy get to grips with Gaddafi's bedouin roadshow. More recently Mr Brown and Mr Obama met the unpredictable autocrat on the fringes of the G8 this month. But there is little doubt that the West favours the more urbane son as its go-between with Tripoli.

In each of the major diplomatic breakthroughs that have brought Libya in from the cold and advanced it to the status of "strategic partner" to the UK, Saif al-Islam has had a decisive role. He has been at the centre of the secret accords, trade deals, compensation packages and prisoner exchanges that have marked the country's return to respectability.

The abandonment of Libya's nuclear weapons programme, the release of the Bulgarian medics convicted of infecting children with HIV, the agreement of compensation for the Lockerbie bombings, the normalisation of relations with the US – all have borne the fingerprints of Saif al-Islam.

Which was why it was a surprise in August last year when he announced he was withdrawing from politics, dismissing speculation that he would replace his father, saying that Libya "was not a farm to be inherited".

But, in the eccentric politics of Gaddafi Snr, few certainties can be relied on. Three months later Saif was in New York talking about a constitution and democratic elections for Libya. The deadline he set for this was September of this year, at the end of the anniversary celebrations commemorating his father's rise to power. The stage could be set for Saif to reconsider inheriting the farm.