In January 2001, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a member of the Libyan intelligence service, was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing by three Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands. In March the following year, his appeal against conviction was turned down by another five Scottish judges.
Al-Megrahi's conviction was an obvious miscarriage of justice (see The Lockerbie Judgement, Problems of Capitalism & Socialism, No 64-5, March 2001). His conviction was an expression of trade union like solidarity within the Scottish legal profession.
The Scottish prosecuting authorities should never have indicted him in the first place. They did so without investigating the credibility of their "star witness", a CIA asset, and his credibility was destroyed during the trial. Nevertheless, as an act of solidarity with their fellow Scottish legal professionals, who had made such a balls up of the prosecution of such an important case, three Scottish judges convicted al-Megrahi in the Netherlands, and five more turned down his appeal.
Al-Megrahi's lawyers are about to present a submission to the Scottish criminal cases review commission, in an attempt to get his conviction re-examined on appeal.
$2.7 billion compensation
Why then has Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and agreed to pay compensation of $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 victims? The answer is that, despite universal press reports to the contrary, Libya has not accepted responsibility for the bombing, nor has it accepted that al-Megrahi is guilty. As usual, journalists have repeated what has been fed to them by government.
What Libya has said is contained in a long letter to the President of the Security Council dated 15 August. This is concerned mainly with stating Libya's opposition to "terrorism" and support for international measures to combat "terrorism". But the first three paragraphs report the resolution of Libya's dispute with the US/UK arising from the Lockerbie incident:
"I am pleased to inform you that the remaining issues relating to fulfillment of all Security Council resolutions resulting from the Lockerbie incident have been resolved. I am also pleased to inform you that my country is confident that Representatives of the United Kingdom and of the United States of America will be confirming this development to you and to members of the Council as well." (paragraph 1)
For Libya to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, it would have to state clearly that al-Megrahi is guilty of the Lockerbie bombing, and that he was acting on behalf of the Libyan state when he carried it out. All the letter says about Libya accepting responsibility is that Libya
"has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials" (paragraph 3)
That does not say anything about al-Megrahi's guilt, nor even that he was one of Libya's "officials". Libya has not accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing at all.
An elaborate game is being played by the US/UK, which will most likely end up in all economic sanctions against Libya being lifted, and Libya being taken off the US list of states that support terrorism.
UN sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992, because it refused to hand over al-Megrahi, and his alleged partner in crime Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, for trial in the US or the UK. Those sanctions were suspended in 1999 when they were handed over for trial by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands, and they have not been in operation since.
For the UN sanctions to be lifted permanently, Libya is required to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, to pay compensation to the victims' families, and to renounce "terrorism". The US/UK are obviously prepared to pretend that Libya has accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing with the words quoted above. Libya has agreed to pay compensation of up to $10 million to each of the victims' families, and is making all the right noises about "terrorism".
So, it can be taken for granted that the UN sanctions are going to be lifted permanently - though France is threatening to veto the process, because Libya paid a mere $30 million in total to the families of the 170 victims of the French UTA flight 772, brought down over Niger in 1989, that is, less than a fiftieth of the amount for each Lockerbie victim.
Since the UN sanctions have not been in operation since 1999, it is not obvious why Libya is prepared to pay the substantial sum of $2.7 billion to get them lifted permanently, especially since it wasn't responsible for the bombing. The answer seems to be that separate US sanctions imposed in 1986 are going to be lifted as well.
At the moment, the US administration is saying that this is not going to happen, because Libya doesn't yet deserve a clean bill of health. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told CNN on 15 August:
"The Libyan regime's behavior - including its poor human rights record and lack of democratic institutions, its disruptive role in perpetuating regional conflicts in Africa, and its continued and worrisome pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their related delivery systems - remains a cause for serious concern."
The story from the US administration at the moment is that it is only going along with the present arrangement so that the victims' families can receive compensation.
However, there are two factors, which make it almost certain that US sanctions will be lifted within months.
First, the compensation package is not a simple matter of each victim's family getting $10 million when the UN sanctions are lifted permanently. Only 40% of that will be paid at that point, and the total amount will only be paid (a) if US sanctions are lifted, and (b) if Libya is removed from the US list of states that support terrorism.
The full story is that if UN sanctions are lifted, each family will receive $4 million. If US sanctions are lifted, each will receive another $4 million, and if the US removes Libya from its list of states that support terrorism, each will receive another $2 million.
But, if the latter two events don't take place within an eight-month period, although another million will go to each family (which means that each family will receive at least $5 million in the deal), the rest of the money will then revert to Libya, that is, 50% of the original $2.7 billion.
It is odd that the US has agreed to this bizarre arrangement, which makes the payment of compensation to victims conditional upon US policy decisions. But, now that it has so agreed, can it maintain sanctions against Libya past the eight-month deadline, and by so doing deprive victims' families of further compensation? Surely, not.
Other pressure upon the US administration to end its sanctions is coming from US companies wishing to do business, especially oil business, with Libya. Since 1999 when UN sanctions were suspended, US owned companies have been at a disadvantage in doing business with Libya, because they are subject to the US imposed sanctions. They are taking the opportunity of this agreement with Libya to press for the lifting of US sanctions as well.
On 21 August, the New York Times carried a story entitled "Businesses Press for US to Lift Libya Sanctions". It began:
"With the United Nations poised to remove economic sanctions against Libya after a settlement in the Lockerbie bombing case, Washington will face new pressure to lift its own sanctions against the government of Muammer Gaddafi
"US business groups, led by oil companies that hold concessions in Libya, met this week to gear up efforts to persuade the administration of President George W. Bush to ease a trade ban that was imposed on Libya in 1986. 'They have changed and we ought to recognise it with some reciprocal actions on our part', said William Reinsch, of the National Foreign Trade Council.'"
And with this US administration, what the oil industry wants, the oil industry usually gets.