Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Compassion - A Scots term with no American translation

Lockerbie deal l
eaves no clean hands
By Ian Williams
Asia Times 24 August 2009

United States President Barack Obama owes Libya and Scotland a lot. The release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was like throwing red meat to the wolves who have been on the president's case. For a week, hysteria about Obama-care, euthanasia, abortion and the rest has been subsumed under a wave of bipartisan indignation about Megrahi.

The America that gave the world the Salem witch trials and the lynch mob ran unabashed and there was the unedifying spectacle of the Obama team running alongside, baying in harmony. (Although perhaps one of the most ill-augured boycott calls ever made is the one to eschew Scotch whisky.)

In contrast, over much of the world, Scotland's decision to release Lockerbie bomber [1] Megrahi on compassionate grounds because he is dying of terminal cancer seems reasonable, as Scottish Justice Minister Kenneth MacAskill so eloquently expounded when giving his decision.

Even so, listening to MacAskill's dithyrambs of self-praise for Scottish judicial compassion would have evoked a guffaw from generations of convicts who were victims of Scotland's vindictively Calvinist prisons in times past. Compassion is a relatively recent official trait in the country, but American furor can make Scotland pride itself on its double independence, cocking a snook at both London and Washington.

However, "compassion", no matter how recent in Scotland, still has no part in the US political or judicial make-up. The American news media were filled with reports about how Britain and Scotland were "on the defensive", and how the victims' families were crying for revenge. But victims' families in Britain supported the release, and the decision created nowhere near the fury in Britain and Scotland that it did on the other side of the Atlantic.

United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller called the Libyan's release "a mockery of the rule of law" and complained to MacAskill that his decision was "as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice".

MacAskill does not need lessons in justice from the US, certainly not from the FBI, with its notorious use of paid informants and provocateurs. When the USS Vincennes indisputably shot down an Iranian Airbus in 1988, killing 290, the crew involved received medals. When the case of dubiously convicted murderer Troy Davis came up before the Supreme Court this month, two justices, fortunately a minority, declared that there was nothing unconstitutional about executing an innocent man as long as he had had a trial.

The US has an incarceration rate more then four times Britain's, almost 10 times that of the European Union as a whole and even higher than Russia's. Clearly, dying in prison has no fears in the US - for those who inflict it. Prisons have had to be adapted for wheelchairs for inmates too old to walk, let alone commit new crimes.

Few people come out with clean hands from the episode. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown certainly knew of the impending release, and did not strive too officiously to avert it, while his protests at Libyan celebrations provide cover against the equally expedient and contrived protests from the White House. British and American oil companies will still be knocking on doors in Tripoli - and finding them opened.

In an oil-short world, Libya has been able to behave with almost Chinese impunity. When I saw that the Swiss president had apologized to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son Hannibal, I briefly wondered if it was because his ancestors had mistreated the Carthaginian general's elephants on their way across the Alps.

But no, the Swiss had released Gaddafi's son a year ago after the latter had paid off the domestics who had complained to the police about abuse. However, since Libya ratted on the Irish Republican Army comrades it used to arm and finance, the British government has had no compunctions in cozying up to Gaddafi, and the eagerness of US business to get into the country has been palpable.

It was naive of Brown to expect the notoriously quixotic Gaddafi to abide by the "no public rejoicing" clause in whatever discussions led up to the release. Indeed, it meant that he showed much more loyalty to Megrahi than former president George W Bush did to his convicted aide Scooter Libby, or indeed Brown is likely to show to MacAskill.

Voluntary fall guys are the noblest fools in politics. Megrahi "volunteered" to go to The Hague and take the rap for Libya to rejoin the world economy. If one overlooks the possibility that dire things might have happened to his family if he hadn't, greater love hath no one ... [2]

His sacrifice is all the more so in view of the strong possibility of his innocence. Totally lost, as so often in the US, is any doubt that someone convicted could possibly be innocent. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that a secret policeman for Gaddafi was "innocent". The regime has proven blood aplenty on its hands, but there is plausible evidence that investigators were so determined to "convict" Libya that they ignored all other leads.

Megrahi's eventual conviction hinged on the confused and contradictory evidence of a Maltese shopkeeper, whose recollections had him aging, rejuvenating, growing and shrinking, depending on who was taking the testimony, and who only finally identified him after his photographs had been widely circulated. The trial as part of the "cleansing" of Libya along with the several billions in blood-money took place in The Hague with Scottish judges, who found his co-accused, on almost identical evidence, not guilty.

Many observers suspect a jury would have thrown both cases out. His release on compassionate grounds was predicated on him dropping his appeal against the conviction, which many felt had a good chance of success. Indeed, he seems to have needed Gaddafi's say-so before dropping the appeal. If Megrahi were guilty, it was because he was acting as an agent for the Gaddafi now being greeted by politicians all over the West. If he were not, then the intelligence agencies of the West framed an innocent man to score political points at Libya.

MacAskill's halo is the only one on the horizon in this murky world.

1. Pan Am Flight 103 was Pan American World Airways' third daily scheduled trans-Atlantic flight from London's Heathrow Airport to New York's John F Kennedy International Airport. On Wednesday, December 21, 1988, the aircraft flying this route - a Boeing 747-121 named Clipper Maid of the Seas - was destroyed by a bomb, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew members. Eleven people in Lockerbie, southern Scotland, were killed as large sections of the plane fell in and around the town, bringing total fatalities to 270.

2. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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