Libya did not plead guilty for Lockerbie


The Libyan Prime Minister, Shukri Ghanem, gave an interview to the Today programme on Radio 4 on 24 February (transcript here), and blurted out the awful truth that Libya has not accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988, nor for the killing of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in April 1984.



As regards the Lockerbie bombing, he said that Libya had paid compensation in order to buy peace, not because it was guilty.  The conversation went as follows:


Q: Another concern in Britain, from the relatives of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing, is that Libya has not actually apologised for what happened, it has simply paid, or agreed to pay, compensation. Why has Libya not actually apologised, said that you're sorry that you were behind this act?


A: Because it is a case that we came to a conclusion that we reached an agreement in which we feel that we bought peace. We, after a while and after the sanctions, and after the problems we have faced because of the sanctions, the loss of money, and we thought that it was easier for us to buy peace, and this is why we agreed on compensation. Therefore we said, let us buy peace, let us put the whole case behind us and let us look forward.


Q: So payment of compensation didn't mean any acceptance of guilt?


A: I agree with that, and this is why I said we bought peace.


There is nothing new in this: Colonel Gaddafi explained the decision to pay compensation in those terms last year.  But the British people were not supposed to know that Libya had not made an admission of guilt.  Fortunately, Mr Ghanem let the cat out of the bag on Today.


Agreed formula

In the course of settling the dispute over Lockerbie last August, the UK and the US governments agreed a formula with Libya, which, while it didn’t say Libya accepted responsibility, it allowed the UK and the US governments to give the impression to their people (and in particular to the victims’ families) that Libya had pleaded guilty.


The key element in that formula was that Libya formally stated that it accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials.  This first saw the light of day in a letter by Libya to the President of the Security Council dated 15 August 2003, which triggered the passing of Security Council resolution 1506 on 12 September, the resolution which lifted UN sanctions against Libya permanently.  (The text of the letter is appended to a press statement issued by Foreign Office Minister, Denis MacShane, on the same date).  All the letter says about Lockerbie 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 doesn’t say anything about the guilt or otherwise of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the bombing, in the greatest miscarriage of justice of our time (see The Lockerbie Trial: A Perverse Verdict, Problems of Capitalism & Socialism, No 64-5, March 2001).  It is generally believed that the two suspects, only one of whom was convicted, were members of the Libyan intelligence service, and therefore Libyan “officials”, but the letter doesn’t even admit that. 


For Libya to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, it would have to state clearly that al-Megrahi is guilty of the bombing, and that he was acting on behalf of the Libyan state when he carried it out.  The letter did neither of those things.


Buying peace

Libya was prepared to pay compensation to the victims in order to buy peace, but it wasn’t prepared to accept responsibility for a bombing for which it wasn’t responsible.  So, the UK and the US had to settle for a formula that could be used to give the impression to their people that Libya had accepted responsibility – otherwise the victims’ families wouldn’t get any compensation from Libya.  That is why the formula that Libya accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials was invented.


It was a key element in the settlement.  It even appears in resolution 1506, which welcomes Libya’s “acceptance of responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials”, as necessary pre-condition for lifting sanctions; the resolution doesn’t say that Libya had accepted responsibility for the bombing.  Speaking after the vote on resolution 1506, the US delegate said that Libya “has formally stated that it accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials”; again, he didn’t say that Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing; he just repeated the agreed formula.


Jack Straw also repeated the formula in the House of Commons on 5 January this year when he made a statement on Libya giving up “weapons of mass destruction” (which it never had); he said that discussions with Libya over several years had led “to Libya agreeing to pay compensation to the families of those killed at Lockerbie, and to the Libyans accepting full responsibility for the actions of their officials”.


Foreign Office lies

Foreign Office Minister, Denis McShane, issued a press statement on 15 August last year, announcing the UK’s willingness to support the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya.  The press statement included a copy of the Libyan letter to the President of the Security Council.  It began:


“In 1988, the worst terrorist incident on UK territory took place over Lockerbie. 270 people were killed when Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky. Libya has today accepted responsibility for that outrage.”


The last sentence is simply a lie.  But, happily for the Government, the press didn’t read the letter that followed and discover it was a lie.  It was universally reported that Libya had accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, as the Government wished.


Jack Straw repeated the lie in a press statement on 12 September, welcoming the passing of resolution 1506, and once more the press obliged by reporting the lie as fact.


The Government’s deception of the public was successful thanks to the press, which printed what it was told without question.  The Libyan Prime Minister lifted the curtain on this deception in his Today interview.  However, with the assistance of the press, the deception has been reconstituted. 


Guardian assist

For example, on 25 February the Guardian diplomatic editor, Ewan MacAskill, wrote a report on the Today interview.  In it, he repeated the official lie twice, saying:


The recent improvement in relations between Libya and Britain have resulted from Libya's acceptance of blame for Lockerbie …”


And later:


“Last year, Libya told the UN it took responsibility for Lockerbie”. 


(A correction supplied to the Guardian by the present writer was not published, even though the Guardian is forever congratulating itself on its willingness to correct mistakes).


This was contrasted with the Libyan Prime Minister’s denial of responsibility on Today.


The next day, another report by MacAskill was published with the headline Libya repudiates PM's Lockerbie comments.  The headline was derived from an official Libyan Government statement, which said, surprise, surprise, that Libya had helped bring two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing to justice and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials.  In other words, it repeated the vacuous formula agreed with the UK and US last August, which doesn’t conflict with what Ghanem had said on Today.


Nevertheless, MacAskill interprets this as an official repudiation by the Libya Government of what Libyan Prime Minister Ghanem said on Today.


Pravda never served the state better than that.


WPC Fletcher

In his Today interview, the Libyan Prime Minister also refused to accept responsibility for the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in London in April 1984.  He agreed with the propositions that “there’s no real evidence that the bullet came from within the London Embassy” and that “there’s no proof that any Libyan was to blame”.


The British Government has always insisted that the bullet that killed Yvonne Fletcher came from the Libyan Embassy and that a Libyan “official” was responsible.  Libya for its part has always denied it, but not with the same vehemence that it has denied responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.


It should be said that their proposition that the bullet did not come from the Libyan Embassy is not risible.  A Dispatches programme broadcast on Channel 4 TV in April 1996 came to the conclusion that the trajectory of the bullet, as shown by the autopsy, indicated that it came from the upper floors of an adjacent building, and not from the first floor of the Libyan Embassy, as the inquest concluded.  The Libyan Embassy, which was only five floors high, did not have a high enough elevation to be the source of the fatal bullet.  Also, according to the Dispatches programme, British and American intelligence services had a surveillance post on the upper floors of 3 St James’s Square, two doors away from the Libyan Embassy.


As part of its rapprochement with Britain, Libya has promised to co-operate with the Metropolitan Police investigation into the death of WPC Fletcher.  But that can mean anything or nothing.  It has also promised to co-operate with any further investigation into the Lockerbie bombing.


No going back

It can be guaranteed that Britain will not put Libya back in the doghouse for failing to co-operate on these issues or even if from time to time it blurts out the truth that it doesn’t accept responsibility for the death of WPC Fletcher or for Lockerbie.


The rapprochement with Libya is a foreign policy success story for Britain, in contrast to the morass in Iraq.  Patient British diplomacy persuaded Libya to make “a courageous decision” (in the Prime Minister’s words) to give up its “weapons of mass destruction” (even though it never had any to give up), so the story goes.


And at such a convenient time too, when no “weapons of mass destruction” had been found in Iraq.  That success story isn’t going to be terminated, just because Libya speaks out of turn – not least because the Prime Minister would look bloody silly when the extravagant tributes he paid to Colonel Gadaffi last December were recalled.



Prime Minister Ghanem was also asked in the Today interview about weapons supplied by Libya to the IRA in the 1980s, in particular, whether, as demanded by the Northern Ireland spokesman for the Conservative Party, Libya would be willing to consider paying compensation for people killed by these weapons.  His reply was as follows:


“No one has suffered from terrorism more than we did. During the Second World War the Allies and the Axis decided to fight each other and from all other places they came to Libya - they fought each other here.


“They put millions of mines on our ground. Still to this day people are getting killed because of these mines and we did not get compensation. And of course if we are talking about compensation, no one deserves maybe compensation more than we do.”



Labour & Trade Union Review

March 2004