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From The Socialist newspaper, 9 September 2009

Return of al-Magrahi to Libya ignites a political storm

Lockerbie victims' relatives demand public inquiry

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has denied any 'oil for al-Magrahi' deal with Libya. However, according to The Times, Straw was personally lobbied by oil giant BP over Britain's prisoner transfer agreement with Libya just before he abandoned efforts to exclude the convicted Lockerbie bomber from the deal.
Also, a leaked 2007 memo from Straw to his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill refers to an expected prisoner transfer agreement with Libya because of "the overwhelming interests of the UK". These UK interests, according to a Justice Department spokesman last week, included: "the normalisation of relations with Libya, which included a range of areas including trade."

THE RELEASE from Greenock prison of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people has provoked a storm of political protest.

US president Barak Obama called the decision a "mistake", the director of the FBI Robert Mueller accused Scotland's Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill (of the Scottish National Party - SNP) of giving "comfort to terrorists", and some Republican senators in the US have called for an economic boycott of Scotland in protest.

Given the horrors that the families of those killed have suffered there has been understandable widespread anger and opposition to the release of Megrahi among the US families of those who died.

The mood in Scotland generally, and amongst the UK relatives of those killed in the bombing is more mixed. Normally, the idea of releasing an individual who was responsible for the murder of 270 people, even if he was terminally ill with cancer, would be overwhelmingly opposed.

However, the fact that many of the UK relatives and others believe Megrahi was not responsible for planting the bomb and that the reality of what happened in 1988 has been deliberately covered up, has produced a much more muted opposition to Megrahi's release. Despite the storm of protest, especially from US families, a BBC poll in Scotland found that 32% of people believed it was correct to release Megrahi from prison.

Lockerbie bombing

Pan Am flight 103 left London Heathrow on 21 December 1988 for New York's JFK airport but blew up over Scotland, killing all 259 people on board. Eleven people in the town of Lockerbie also lost their lives. It remains the biggest terror attack ever carried out in the UK. It was also the biggest loss of US lives in a terrorist attack until the events of 9/11 - 2001.

Despite the eventual accusations made against Libya - that their intelligence agents were responsible for the bombing - the initial focus of the investigations was aimed at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP - GC), who were funded by Iran and headquartered in Syria. (In 1986, the USS Vincennes had shot down a civilian Iranian airbus killing 290 people.)

For more than two years it was this line of enquiry that the FBI, the Scottish police and other agencies followed. Suspected PFLP-GC members had been arrested in Frankfurt two months before the Lockerbie bombing with Semtex explosive devices concealed in Toshiba radios.

It was the fragments of a similar radio device that was found to have contained the bomb that blew up Pan Am 103. German federal police provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited 5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.

Imperialist interests

However, in the run up to the first Gulf War following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 when the US were looking for support from Iran and Syria (Syria joined the US coalition) the PFLP-GC investigation was stopped. The economic and strategic interests of US imperialism in its intervention in the Middle East were almost certainly the key factor in the decision to abandon the pursuit of the PFLP-GC and the connection with the Iranian and Syrian regimes.

Attention shifted to the Libyan dictatorship of Colonel Gadaffi, who had been a thorn in the flesh of US imperialism and had given support and resources to terror organisations in the past. In 1999 after years of threats and economic sanctions, Libya agreed to allow two of its intelligence agents, one of whom was Megrahi to stand trial for the bombing of Pan Am 103 in Zeist, Netherlands, where a Scottish court would sit. In 2001 Megrahi was found guilty by three judges of the bombing. He was eventually sentenced to 27 years in jail in Scotland.

There was widespread questioning over the outcome of the trial in 2001. Robert Black QC - an emeritus professor of Scottish law at Edinburgh University and one of the legal architects of the original trial in Holland - commented: "No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.'

Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the Lockerbie bombing, has long believed Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing and has campaigned for a public inquiry. He made a telling point about Margaret Thatcher who was prime minister at the time of the Lockerbie disaster. "She refused even to meet me, as a representative of the families, to hear our request for a public inquiry. And then, in 1993, in her memoirs, she writes that after she backed the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, Libya never again mounted a serious attack on the West. How can she write that if she believed Libya was behind Lockerbie two years later? Unless she knows something she is not saying."

In the meantime the geo-political situation had changed markedly. Following the decision to allow Megrahi to stand trial in 1999 and the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 the Libyan leadership let it be known they were prepared to engage with US imperialism.

Gadaffi agreed to abandon a nuclear weapons programme and following Tony Blair's visit to Libya in 2004 the last of the economic sanctions imposed on Libya by the UN and the EU were lifted.

Profit motive

Moreover, British and US imperialism were licking their lips at the prospect of the enormous profits to be made from contracts with Libya, including its large oil and gas reserves. BP, with its many links to New Labour, has signed a $900 million oil and gas exploration contract to build 17 wells in Libyan territory.

British companies are queuing up to cash in on the opening up of contracts in the financial, defence and energy sectors of Libya. Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown have claimed there was no trade deal to allow Megrahi to be released but it is clear that the interests of big business played a key role in the unfolding of these cynical events. This includes the signing by Tony Blair of a UK/Libya prisoner transfer agreement in 2007, clearly aimed at Megrahi as he was the only Libyan prisoner in a UK jail at the time.

Megrahi lost his first appeal but the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission found in 2007 that a second appeal should be allowed as there were six grounds to suspect that a miscarriage of justice had been carried out. These included evidence, not made available to the defence, which indicated that four days before Tony Gauci in Malta picked out Megrahi in an identification parade he saw a photograph of him in a magazine article linking him to the bombing, undermining the reliability of his testimony.

Other material that would have come out in court included the US intelligence documents that discounted Libyan involvement and blamed Iran as acting in response to the shooting down of the Iranian commercial airliner by the USS Vincennes. The US Defence Intelligence Agency papers suggested that Tehran sponsored the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Ahmed Jibril - a former Syrian army officer.

Megrahi dropped his right to a second appeal just days before he was released. Had Megrahi won his appeal, it would have been a disaster for the Scottish legal system, whose Crown Office prosecuted Megrahi. As Robert Black commented: "There was strong pressure from civil servants and Crown officials to bring the appeal to an end."

The SNP, Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish legal establishment have a common interest in protecting the standing of a so-called "Scottish institution". As a report in the Sunday Times revealed, "an anonymous email sent to a SNP MSP, purporting to come from a justice department official said that Megrahi's appeal was "an almighty headache" for the criminal justice system, concerned about flaws in the case against Megrahi and vulnerable to accusations that the Crown withheld crucial information from his defence team.

To make matters worse for those who want the truth - especially the relatives of those victims of the Lockerbie disaster - Foreign Secretary David Milliband has slapped a Public Interest Immunity Certificate to ensure that secret documents on the Lockerbie bombing cannot now be released.

End the cover up

The 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing and their relatives have been and are being treated like pawns in the manoeuvres carried out by successive governments to protect big business interests, imperialist influence and to preserve the "integrity" of a biased and class based legal system in Scotland.

All documents and evidence related to the Lockerbie events and the legal process must be opened to public scrutiny by democratically elected representatives of the families, their representatives and wider society. This could mark a step towards a real accounting of who carried out the atrocity and into those who have sought to cover up, obscure or divert attention away from what really took place.

As Jim Swire, whose daughter died on 21 December 1988, has said: "The whole process was a political stitch-up from start to finish, which is something that needs to be gotten to the bottom of."

The Lockerbie disaster and the events surrounding it underline the need to build a mass socialist alternative to the horrors of war, terror attacks and imperialist domination of our world.

The International Socialists and the parties and groups that make up the Committee for a Workers International are fighting for a socialist world. One which would lay the basis for an end to imperialist conflict, terrorism, corrupt dictatorships and the exploitation of the world's peoples by big business interests.

The above article is a shortened version of the editorial from The Socialist (Scotland) - the paper of the International Socialists, Committee for a Workers' International.

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