Dominic Lawson: The Prime Minister's silence over Lockerbie is eloquent

Gordon Brown's response underlines the absurdity of the entire episode
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The Independent Online

In recent months Gordon Brown has revealed to us his opinions about the deaths of Jade Goody ("saddened ... she was a courageous woman both in life and death"), Michael Jackson ("very sad news ... thoughts are with Michael Jackson's family at this time") and on the emotional well-being of the Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle ("I spoke to Simon Cowell and to Piers Morgan and wanted to be sure she was OK").

Yet when his own nation, Scotland, decides to release the only man found guilty of the biggest single act of mass murder ever to take place within the United Kingdom, what do we hear from Gordon Brown? Five days of silence followed by little more than a squeak. The alleged author of a book entitled Courage has once again shown his complete lack of this essential element in political leadership.

In its way, however, the Prime Minister's silence is eloquent: it is a reflection of the fact that Labour's handling of the case of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi has been duplicitous from first to last. As the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill pointed out yesterday, London had been assuring the US administration that there was no way that Megrahi would be allowed to return to Libya, while simultaneously agreeing a secret prisoner transfer agreement with Colonel Gaddafi – which could only have concerned Megrahi (a distant relative of the Libyan dictator).

It is true that under such a transfer, Megrahi would technically have still been a prisoner in Tripoli, rather than freed outright on "compassionate grounds" – but I suspect this would have been a distinction without a difference for the relatives of the 270 victims of the bomb that blew up Pan-Am flight 103.

The compassionate Mr MacAskill also chose yesterday to reiterate his view that the dying Megrahi "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power ... terminal, final and irrevocable". I continue to find the implications of this phrase deeply disturbing. It implies that the Libyan's prostate cancer is a divine verdict on his actions. I can see that this might have been designed to soften the hurt of the families so suddenly and violently bereaved on 21 December 1988; but if it were true that God Himself had decided to punish the murderer in this way, who is Mr MacAskill to order a countervailing favour for Megrahi and his family?

More mundanely, Mr MacAskill's continued insistence that it was only through the release of Megrahi that Scotland could display to the world "our compassion and regard for humanity" shows him to be a Justice Secretary lacking any idea of what justice truly means. Justice has nothing to do with impressing the world with the allegedly unique virtues of the people of Scotland – many of whom in any case are appalled by the release of Megrahi. Justice was what the Scottish court honoured when sentencing the Libyan to imprisonment for life; and, you might say, compassion was what the Scottish prison service had already shown Megrahi by affording him the best possible medical care.

As the eminent human rights campaigner Geoffrey Robertson QC (author of Crimes against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice) said this weekend: "We show mercy towards the merciless by abjuring torture and the death sentence ... I have read the judgement of the Lockerbie court and the two appeal judgements upholding it and al-Megrahi's guilt seems plain beyond reasonable doubt".

There are indeed many people, including at least one parent of a Lockerbie victim, who doubt the correctness of the decision of those Scottish Judges back in 2001. A conspiracy theory has developed, which centres on the claim that the Americans knew Iran was behind the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, but regarded the Libyans as more suitable for framing as perpetrators. This is not only an immense slur on the Scottish judges involved (alleging in effect that they are CIA patsies) but also absurdly implies that Washington wants to protect an Islamic Revolutionary regime with which it has been in constant conflict since 1979.

Remember that it was not just for the Lockerbie incident that Libya paid out billions of dollars in compensation, acknowledging its acceptance of "responsibility for the action of [its] officials". It also agreed to compensate victims of the September 1988 bombing of UTA Flight 772 from Brazzaville to Paris. The motive was held to be revenge for France's backing for Chad in its military conflict with Libya; among the six Libyans charged by the French Courts in absentia was Abdullah Sanussi, head of Libyan intelligence – and brother-in-law of Muammar Gadaffi.

Here we come to the true moral obscenity in this murky affair. On the assumption – shared by both the Scottish and British Governments – that Megrahi was rightfully convicted, then what of General Gaddafi himself, Libya's autocratic ruler these past 40 years? Is it seriously suggested that Megrahi, a long-serving officer in the Libyan Intelligence service, had acted without orders from above? That, certainly, would be unbelievable; and would anyone in Libya other than Gaddafi have had the status (and, one might add, the megalomania) to authorise such an action?

Yes, if anyone can be accused of being the malevolent power behind the slaughter of so many innocents heading home for Christmas with their families, that man is Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi. Yet this is also the man whose celebrations of 40 years of dictatorship are to be attended by prime ministers and presidents from across the globe. Our own Prince Andrew had also accepted the invitation to attend, in his capacity as the UK's "Special Representative for International Trade and Development".

We are now informed that because Gaddafi had ignored a Gordon Brown letter (beginning "Dear Muammar...") requesting that Megrahi's homecoming be "sensitively handled", our Government has now asked Prince Andrew to stay at home playing golf instead. While we may laugh at Gordon Brown's pathetic belief that Colonel Gaddafi does sensitive, his approach underlines the absurdity of the entire episode. The mass-murdering agent of a maniacal dictator is released after eight years so that he can die in peace and at home (the end so horrifically denied to his victims) – and the only concern of Gordon Brown is that the PR is handled well by the Libyan authorities.

Still, it would be naïve to express surprise, still less astonishment at this denouement. While the British Government denies that any deal was done over Megrahi's release (and is intensely relieved that the Scottish government is taking the heat from Washington) we should not forget that hundreds of IRA terrorists, many of them murderers, were released long ahead of time, in order to fit in with the political exigencies of the Irish "peace process". Indeed, the amnesty was extended to IRA killers who were still on the run, having escaped from the Maze. Tony Blair, the author of that policy, was also the man who wooed Gaddafi. In both instances, he argued that "the greater good" was served: in the Libyan case, the good of persuading Gaddafi to renounce terrorism, and become a reliable trading partner.

Beneath realpolitik, however, are the broken lives of real people. So we should leave the last word to Hisham Matar, whose father has been a political prisoner in Libya for the past 20 years, not allowed to see any of his family: "Today I imagine my father; I think of him listening to the celebrations of the prison guards at the news of al-Megrahi's return...then I think of al-Megrahi's children welcoming him home."

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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