Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Reflections on Megrahi's release

Because I am too busy these days, most of the posts I wish to write never see the light of day. However, this particular one was called to life by Highlander's post Donkeys Vs People: The Media Circus. After reading it, I immediately decided to leave aside all other matters that can be postponed and write down my thoughts.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is a Libyan intelligence officer who had become the sole convict for the 1988 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 but was "freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Government on 20 August 2009 following reports that he had terminal prostate cancer and had less than three months to live". In order to be freed, Megrahi had to drop his appeal.
The release made unhappy just about everybody. Most victims' families, US government and many ordinary Westerners are outraged that the convict was allowed to return home as a free man and received a hero's welcome, while most Libyans seem indignant because he is still considered guilty and his appeal will never be processed.
The Lockerbie bombing set a sad record in the number of civilians killed in a single terror act - 270. As far as I know, the previous record was in the distant 1925 - the St. Nedelya Church bombing in Bulgaria, by communist terrorists. So Lockerbie opened a new era in the history of terror and is undoubtedly very important. However, I must admit that I have never made efforts to be very informed about it. The details of the case are too far from my field of competence, and the information available in public space has been from the beginning too tainted with unsubstantiated guessing and apparent deliberate disinformation to be useful.
If you ask me what I think of Mr. Megrahi's guilt (or lack of it), I'll frankly say that I don't know. As I recently wrote on Anglo's blog, "I generally trust British justice, and I surely don't believe the fancy conspiracy theories circulated around. However, a miscarriage of justice can always happen, especially when a horrible crime is committed and the public insists to have somebody - anybody - punished". I would add that Britain has had sad precedents in convicting innocents after large-scale terror acts - the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Indeed, their cases were examples of inquisitional-type justice relying heavily on confessions, while Megrahi never confessed anything. However, the little I have read about his case has left in me the impression that linking forensic evidence to him depended too much on the testimony of a single person, some shopkeeper from Malta. While this does not prove Megrahi's innocence in any way, it makes me doubt that his guilt has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt. But again, I don't know the details of the case even to the degree that has been released to the public, and so I may be wrong.
At some time after Megrahi's conviction in 2001, new arguments for his innocence began to be circulated in public space. They can be found on the Web very easily, so forgive me for not linking to them. I just don't wish to, because they do not sound to me believable at all, but rather look like a smokescreen. Briefly, it is claimed that Megrahi has been framed by CIA in order to shield the real perpetrators Iran and Syria, because Libya allegedly was a more convenient target than them. Let me quote what I wrote two years ago on Highlander's blog: "I won't bet my hand that Al-M. is innocent. If he is, I'll think this is despite the "new evidence" disputed now in all media, not because of it. This "evidence" has all the elements of the most persistent Western myths of recent time: the big bad USA deliberately (rather than by honest mistake) going after those innocents who are most suitable targets for the moment, retired CIA officers becoming whistleblowers (this agency's retirement rules definitely need scrutiny) and a conspiracy which managed to remain secret for many years despite involving dozens of people of all sorts. Not that it is impossible. No laws of physics forbid it. But it is highly unlikely. Besides, if it happened this way, why didn't CIA plant evidence also against Al-M.'s co-defendant and buy more reliable witnesses?We must keep in mind that European culture is tolerant to evil. This helps explain many things about Europe. E.g. the abolition of death penalty. I was all for it. It was said to me and others that death penalty isn't needed to protect the society from a murderer, because if the murder is a really grisly one (or more than one), he will be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. And now, after we have abolished death penalty, we are said that no European country has life imprisonment without parole. Letting a murderer walk free after several years in prison is at the basis of today's European psyche. People are conditioned to perceive this as normal. So give people the benefit of the doubt, but beware evil. Don't count on anybody else to stop it. There is nobody."
I still have mixed thoughts about death penalty. I am concerned about the innocents that will inevitably be wrongly convicted from time to time, I worry about the reflections of the death sentence on those who pronounce and execute it, and I am just disgusted by the idea of cold-bloodedly taking the life of a person unable to defend himself. However, I must admit that my opponents were right in one thing - that abolition of death penalty will allow release of any convict as soon as it becomes politically advantageous and the public is looking aside. In Megrahi's case, I fear how easy it turned to make witnesses withdraw their testimony or bring 3rd people to testify that they have bribed the witnesses; and because, unlike Bulgaria, it is (yet) not possible to make forensic evidence in Britain disappear, then you can find a big-mouthed former CIA employee admitting that he has planted it. Don't you share my fear that these tools have the power to make anybody immune to justice?
If you ask why I think somebody in the West would be interested in rescuing Megrahi from the grip of justice, I would answer that the urge to deal with Libya can quite create such interests. First, after Bulgaria joined EU in early 2007, this created solidarity links between it and older EU members. Soon, rumours started that the Bulgarian medics could be traded to Megrahi. If Highlander, the target reader of this post, has endured to this point, I would ask her to look at this 2007 Standart News report titled Saif al-Islam: There Is a Link Between Megrahi and the Nurses. Let me quote a little from it: "There is a connection between the cases of Lockerby bomber's - the Libyan Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi - and the Bulgarian nurses, said in his latest interview the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi Saif al-Islam for the French Le Mond. "We made a link between the cases. We also agreed to discuss the issue on a bilateral level - between Libya and Great Britain. Formerly, it was insisted that this discussion should be held on a broadly European level," he added."
I would not risk to guess whether such "agreement" really existed or not. However, the common rule in deals of this sort is that they are automatically invalidated if one of the sides makes them public. So, the fact is that our medics were allowed to return while Megrahi remained in prison. However, these days we heard again from Mr. al-Islam. Let me quote the Telegraph from Aug. 21: "Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif, claimed the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, was linked to trade deals between Britain and Libya." Understandably, these statements are of little help in convincing Westerners that Megrahi and Libya had no role in the Lockerbie bombing. Personally, during the years of the HIV trial I have heard Mr. al-Islam make and then retract so many conflicting statements without a shadow of embarassment that I have stopped taking him seriously a long time ago. The only rational explanation of his behaviour that I can figure out is that he intends to perplex the stupid Western infidels and show them that their brains are absolutely useless in understanding the world.
At the end of her post, Highlander writes, "My biggest disappointment is that now that the documents have been sealed forever we will never know what really happened on the ill fated Pan Am flight..." I envy her optimism that if the appeal hadn't been dropped, we would know what really happened. However, I still hope that some day the truth may come out. There is a broad agreement that the Lockerbie bombing was state-sponsored (be it Libya or another state). So there is still chance that truth will emerge one day from the archives of the state perpetrator. This happened in the case of assassinated Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov (no relation to me). After 1989, although the archives of our Communist security services were rigourously cleared, they still revealed evidence that Markov's murder was Bulgaria's deed.
My general impression from Highlander's post is that she has fallen in the trap of equating her homeland and people with the regime, a trap too often encountered by those living under rulers similar to Qadafi. E.g. she refers to Libyan authorities that had convicted the Bulgarian medics as "those 'evil' Arabs" (from Western point of view). I guess many other Libyans are in a similar mood. Therefore, I wish to end my post with a quote from the above mentioned Anglo's post. I am finding the quoted text so important that I'll mark it in bold:
"At the end of the day, whether he did this crime or not, Al-Megrahi was working for the Libyan intelligence and I do know from people that worked for Libyan Airlines in the 1980s that he was feared and was involved in many nasty acts against Libyans, this does not make him into a hero..."


Highlander said...

Thanks Maya, excellent post but it still does not address my thoughts which are actually quite simpler.

I never said Megrahi was a hero, the nature of his job is not something new but is on a par with that of other agencies viz FBI or CIA and could involve unpleasant work. That's life.

What bothers me is the double standards metted out against anyone perceived of Arab/Muslim origin- like this person has less rights because of that.

I am upset that people were outraged that he was freed and those same people were happy that the nurses were freed, denying others by extension the right to be upset or happy .

If we strip all the background of politics/deals the comparison is simple: reception vs reception after all both cases were of convicted murderers found guilty in at least one court.

Maya M said...

Thank you for visiting and commenting, Highlander!
I agree with you that it would be better not to celebrate the return of the Bulgarian medics, but as I mentioned on Anglo's blog, politicians couldn't miss such an occasion to advertise themselves.
On all other points, however, I see we agree to disagree :-).
You say, "double standards are metted out against anyone perceived of Arab/Muslim origin - like this person has less rights because of that".
I could hardly agree after European countries accepted large masses of Arab and other Muslim immigrants at the same time when this privilege was denied to my relations and friends. A more recent example - the case of Marwa El-Sherbini, Egyptian Muslim immigrant to Germany about whom I recently blogged. A white non-Muslim man was on trial for insulting her, and she was the sole prosecution witness. As I mentioned in the current post, I have doubts in verdicts based on the testimony of a single person. I'll add, especially if this person cannot be considered unbiased. So the described setting isn't quite my idea of a fair trial. And if the accused hadn't went berserk and killed Marwa, I would not have heard about the story at all.
You say, "both cases (Megrahi and the Bulgarian medics) were of convicted murderers found guilty in at least one court". I don't think, however, that anybody in the West perceives the court in Libya as a court. Practically all Western nations have had similar courts at one or another moment in their history, and they do not wish ever to mess with such things again. And nobody expects to see any other sort of court in a country with such rulers. I seem to have spoken too softly about the impression left by Saif al-Islam and his father. For a Westerner, they are not only people with (to say the least) extremely different set of values. They are also people who aren't quite neurotypical and pretend to be even crazier than they really are in order to intimidate their "partners". The same tactic is used by Iran's Ahmadinejad, who is also holding very similar courts. The average person, when negotiating with somebody possessing both power and an uncertain psychiatric status, feels very insecure and is prone to extra concessions, so I shan't deny that the tactic works. However, it has a price and as long as it is used, you cannot expect other people to accept Libyan courts and government as their counterparts in other countries.
When you wrote on your post, "Sadly, the majority of Libyans are not that interested in Megrahi's fate", I of course thought that you perceive him as a hero, or at least as a decent person. Now you write, "I never said Megrahi was a hero, the nature of his job... is on a par with that of other agencies viz FBI or CIA and could involve unpleasant work". Again, as with courts, I see undue comparison of apples and oranges. While the activity of any intelligence agency is likely to involve unpleasant work, my opinion is that the secret services of non-Western countries are unlikely to do any pleasant work at all. In Bulgaria, 20 years after the official fall of communism, we still cannot free ourselves from their sinister grip. In Russia, they are popularly called "exterminators of the people" (istrebiteli naroda). I know this from a book by repented Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, later poisoned by his former colleagues. So I bet that whatever was Megrahi doing in Malta under false identity, it wasn't for the benefit of Libyan people and all mankind. Of course he, like any (even the nastiest) human being, still has his rights. But why invest so much emotions?
Your recent writing concerning the USA sound a little strange to me. They remind me Stanislaw Lem's novels about the impossibility of mutual understanding, "Solaris" and "The Invincible". At the same time, however, I am glad that you may be moving toward some opinions generally accepted in the Libyan community, and this may increase your own acceptance by this community.

Maya M said...

The idea that Arabs are considered as less valuable human beings by Westerners is used as a working hypothesis by the International Solidarity Movement (and in 2003 by those Westerners who went to Iraq as human shields). Rachel Corrie once explicitly wrote that Israel gets away with killing Palestinians but would face a severe reaction in case of killing HER.
I cannot say what impact this idea has on politicians, but it is certainly lost on me. I do not classify human beings in a hierarchy of value dependent on culture or ethnic origin. Moreover, Palestinians may not be my favourite group of people, but I have much more sympathy to them, as people with the poor luck to be born in a hellhole, than to Westerners such as the ISM members who travel thousands of miles to reach this hellhole and try their best to make it even more of a hellhole.