Friday, 20 August 2010

Lazarus in Libya, ignominy in London

The Daily Star
Friday August 20 2010
By Michael Glackin

On this day last year, in the company of fellow journalists and a plethora of television crews from the UK, the US and the Middle East, I was ushered into a small, stuffy room in the bowels of the Scottish Government Building in Edinburgh.

Inside the overcrowded basement, Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, announced to us that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the worst terror atrocity in British history – the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people – had just been released from prison and was en route to a waiting jet that would take him home to his family in Libya.

Megrahi, whose conviction in 2000 had been questioned by many, including some of the victims’ families, was released on “compassionate grounds” because he was suffering from “terminal cancer” and had just three months to live.

When I asked MacAskill if he believed Megrahi was innocent he insisted the Libyan was guilty. He solemnly intoned that Megrahi now faced “a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”

Well, we’re all going to die. But Megrahi was supposed to die within 12 weeks of MacAskill’s somber pronouncement. Indeed, this was the sole reason for his “compassionate release” under Scottish law.

One year on, Megrahi is of course alive and, if not entirely well, he is yet expected to remain among the living for another year at least. Indeed one respected cancer specialist predicted that he would be around to enjoy the London Olympics in 2012 and perhaps even the next World Cup in 2014. It’s the greatest recovery since Lazarus.

The decision to free the Lockerbie bomber was always contentious, but in the last year it has descended into farce, enveloped by conspiracy theories about oil deals, political double-dealing, cover-ups, and now bogus medical evidence.

Megrahi was released after the Scottish prison service’s director of health and care, Dr. Andrew Fraser, announced that his cancer was resistant to “any treatment.” But it has since emerged that the cancer specialists most familiar with Megrahi’s case were not consulted before his release, and that one of the specialists who did see him was actually being paid by the Libyan government.

Moreover, it has also emerged that a standard chemotherapy medicine, Taxotere, was not administered to Megrahi. The prisoner couldn’t receive the treatment inside prison, but the medicine could surely have been administered at a local hospital.

No one appears to have an answer for how doctors diagnosed Megrahi’s cancer as untreatable when he hadn’t received chemotherapy, but it suited the overall plan of the British and Scottish governments to ignore this fact in their desperation to return him to Libya. And ignore it both governments surely did because Megrahi’s application for compassionate release, made just weeks before he was freed, actually referred to the possibility of his undergoing chemotherapy to treat the cancer once he was free.

The medical revelations fit in neatly with conspiracy theorists who believe trade – Libya has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the UK in the past year – and oil are at the heart of Megrahi’s release.

In March 2007 Premier Tony Blair agreed to the so-called “deal in the desert” with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This included provisions for a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) between the two nations, designed solely to repatriate Megrahi. During the visit, Blair also witnessed the inking of a $900 million gas and oil exploration deal between oil giant BP and Tripoli.

The Scottish government had asked the British government to exclude Megrahi from the PTA, but in late 2007 BP successfully lobbied Blair, warning that failure to agree to the PTA on Libyan terms could hit British commercial interests – or more specifically BP’s exploration deal with Libya. which was awaiting ratification. Indeed, a leaked letter revealed that then-British Justice Secretary Jack Straw wrote to MacAskill in December 2007 and told him that it was “in the overwhelming interests of the UK” to let Megrahi return to Libya.

BP insists it never mentioned Megrahi when lobbying for the PTA, but of course there was no need to since there was no one of similar significance among the 26 Libyans held at the time in British prisons.

The Scottish government insists it “had no contact from BP” while considering Megrahi’s release, and of course Megrahi was not released under the PTA, but freed on compassionate grounds.

Will we ever get to the truth in this affair? Prime Minister David Cameron called for an independent inquiry into the Megrahi release while he was in opposition, but has refused to countenance one now that he is in power.

So to mark the anniversary of Megrahi’s release, let me offer an alternative. Megrahi was due to have an appeal heard against his conviction in 2009, which he abandoned to facilitate his release. Megrahi’s lawyers planned to introduce documents that were not made available at Megrahi’s trial. Chief among these was evidence from the US Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing by Iran to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by an American warship, killing 290 people. Many believe Syria's role in the bombing was swept under the carpet after Syrian president Hafez Assad supported the US led alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in early 1991. Megrahi was not formally indicted for the crime by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.

If Megrahi were allowed to launch his appeal from Libya it would perhaps go some way toward shedding light on what happened the night Pan Am 103 went down, as well as the process surrounding his conviction and discharge from prison. The evidence against Megrahi was dubious, but the reasons given for his release were equally so.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Any substance to David of the East?

The Daily Star
Friday August 6 2010
By Michael Glackin

The art of diplomacy, according to American historian Will Durant, is “to say nothing, especially when speaking.” During his recent whistle stop tour of foreign capitals, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to have gone out of his way to ignore that maxim.

In just a few days Cameron debunked the belief that the United Kingdom enjoyed a special relationship with the US by declaring that the UK was no more than a “junior partner” of Washington. He also irritated the Israeli government by calling Gaza a prison camp. And he enraged Pakistanis by saying their country exported terrorism. Each statement was correct (except the first, which greatly overestimated British importance). But to say Cameron’s language was undiplomatic was an understatement.

Cameron’s comments about Pakistan in particular were, in diplomatic terms, brutal. “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror whether to India, whether to Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the world.” For Cameron’s admirers those remarks – which unlike his Gaza comments were unscripted – represented a welcome blast of honesty in British foreign policy.

But as people in the Middle East in particular know, talk is cheap. In politics actions are what count, and whether Cameron’s bold words marked a departure from the years of failed strategies in both the Afghan conflict and the Palestinian issue was a moot point.

Interestingly, government officials refused to be drawn out on whether this cascade of candor heralded a new approach to foreign affairs, or in view of Cameron’s Gaza remarks a tougher attitude toward Israel. Instead, an official at Number 10 Downing Street repeated to me – seven times – that the prime minister’s comments spoke for themselves, and steadfastly refused to clarify what, if anything, their impact would be on wider British policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Cameron’s summary of Pakistan’s ambivalence to terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere revealed nothing new, although when he said that he “cannot tolerate” this situation any longer you suspected that he was talking less about banging heads together in Islamabad and more about his own plans to beat a hasty retreat from a never-ending war.

There have been moans for some time in Washington that Pakistan’s main intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, “looks both ways” in its dealings with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Last year US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “to a certain extent, they [Pakistan] play both sides.” More recently the WikiLeaks website published US military documents indicating the ISI was aiding the Taliban.

The ISI of course had close links with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union, and later the Taliban. It has been criticized for failing to crack down on the Haqqani network, the group led by former Mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. He was once generously bankrolled by Washington, but is now linked to both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and launches regular attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Pakistan would argue it is fighting a fierce battle with the Taliban, not just along its northwest frontier, but in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, where suicide bombers have unleashed devastating attacks. This point will be made by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari when he meets with Cameron in London on Friday. He might also mention Pakistan’s army, which casts a long shadow over Pakistani politics and is furious with Zardari for traveling to the UK despite Cameron’s criticism. The army may yet decide that Zardari is surplus to the requirements of Pakistani politics, throwing the west’s Afghan strategy into further turmoil.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s comments on Gaza were actually a repeat of comments he made in Parliament earlier this year. Nor was he the first British official to describe the plight of those living in Gaza in this light.

More than 20 years ago, Foreign Office Minister David Mellor outraged Israel when he upbraided an Israeli colonel in protest at the behavior of his soldiers in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada. Mellor, who had links of a sort with the Palestinians via his relationship with Mona Bauwens, a daughter of the late PLO official Jaweed al-Ghussein, also used some undiplomatic language to describe living conditions in Gaza.

Yet Israel retains an iron grip on Gaza’s borders and only allows in a very limited quantity of supplies. Israel insists the blockade will continue while Hamas runs Gaza’s government, yet Palestinians elected Hamas precisely because nothing had changed since Mellor’s visit years ago.

You could be forgiven for thinking Cameron’s primary policy last week was simply to ingratiate himself with his multiple hosts. His warnings about Pakistan went down well in India, a country that regularly accuses its neighbor of complicity in terror attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere. The UK is also keen to forge increased business links with New Delhi as the nucleus of global economic growth switches east.

And Cameron’s Turkish hosts were no doubt delighted to hear his pronouncements on Gaza, not to mention his support for Turkey’s membership of the EU and his criticism of the Israeli attack against the international relief convoy to Gaza in which nine Turks died.

Oliver Miles, a former diplomat who has been critical of British policy in the Middle East, said this week: “I’d rather have a prime minister who believes he is clever enough to speak out in public than one who believes he is clever enough to solve the world’s problems by going to war.”

Well so say all of us, but only time will tell if David Cameron’s comments actually amount to anything more than hot air.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.