A few weeks ago, in July, US families of the Lockerbie victims gathered in front of a TV screen in both the British embassy in Washington, DC and in the consulate in New York.
They were connected via video conference with Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill, who discussed with them both the options of prisoner transfer for Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, and a compassionate release, since the 57-year-old was suffering from prostate cancer.
According to Frank Duggan, a former Chairman of the National Mediation Board who serves as president of the group of American victims of flight Pan Am 103, the conference was civilized and the Americans were direct with MacAskill. "We told him in no uncertain terms we did not want Megrahi transferred back to Libya. MacAskill did mention compassionate release as another option for him, but never in such a way as to make us believe it would actually happen. We view what subsequently happened as nothing short of betrayal," Duggan tells me.
The shock in the wake of Megrahi's release, his hero's welcome in Libya -- and now the leak of two letters from Jack Straw, Britain's justice minister, insinuating that the British told the Scottish that it was OK to transfer the convicted terrorist, since to keep him blocked a $30 billion oil exploration deal between BP and Libya -- have led to proposals to boycott Scotland, a rally in New Jersey protesting Muammar Qaddafi's plans to camp there (now canceled) during the upcoming UN General Assembly -- and now calls in both Britain and the US for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stop evading the issue and tell the truth about his government's involvement.
I have communicated with Duggan repeatedly over the weekend. "In our view the British have behaved worse than the Scots," was his view on receiving the news about Straw's leaked correspondence. We also discussed the op-ed that appeared in the New York Times under the byline of the Libyan dictator's son, Saif Al-Islam El-Qaddafi; Qaddafi fils insists there was no "hero's welcome" for Megrahi on his return to Tripoli, explaining away the hundreds of cheering, flag-waving supporters as members of Megrahi's "extended family," and makes the O.J. Simpson-like assertion that the "truth about Lockerbie will come out one day." Call me skeptical, but when it comes to credible track records, even the British government, who wrote to their buddy Qaddafi asking that Megrahi enter the country quietly, by now must doubt the veracity of what comes out of the mouths and word processors of Libya's leaders.
Many of those who have protested Megrahi's innocence have ties to Libya, including having been paid or promised payments by the Libyan government -- something that may come as news to all those busy protesting Megrahi's innocence. In some cases the Megrahi apologists have some hidden reason to blame others -- ranging from the Iranians or Americans, who some claim tampered with evidence or bribed witnesses to suit their own purposes.
First among the Megrahi defenders is Dr. Jim Swire, an English doctor who lost his daughter, Flora, in the bombing. Apparently Swire is a plausible, decent man -- but according to people who have known him a long time, he was never pro-America; in fact, quite the reverse. He was upset that Flora was planning to marry an American just before she died, according to sources. This fact, obviously, is not mentioned when he is quoted by the media. Duggan is reluctant to criticize another victim's family member, but says that Dr. Swire's mind was made up before Megrahi's trial.
Then there is Edwin Bollier, the Swiss businessman who worked for Mebo, the company that manufactured the bomb-timer and whose office was next door to Megrahi. He has said repeatedly that Megrahi is innocent and that evidence was suppressed at the trial. He has good reason to say all this. Last year it emerged that Libya offered him $200 million if he could help set Megrahi free. Bollier contributes almost daily to the blog maintained by Professor Robert Black, a Scottish law expert, calling for a new trial.
Then there is Dr. Hans Koechler, one of six UN observers -- and the only one to believe that the trial in front of judges, rather than a jury because of all the publicity -- was a travesty. Hans Koechler is a teacher at Innsbruck University; he heads something called "the International Progress Movement." He holds himself out as having some official position with the UN, which appears to give him credibility. His view of the trial, in which Megrahi was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by eight Scottish judges -- three trial judges and five appellate judges who came to a unanimous verdict -- does not appear to be shared by the other five UN observers.
Finally we come to Professor Robert Black, the Scottish lawyer whose opinion perhaps carries the most weight because he was one of the architects who devised the judge trial instead of a jury trial. He has since said he regrets this because he believes that the verdict was based on weak circumstantial evidence that he believes would not have persuaded a jury. He is frustrated that other judges and lawyers -- including those who denied the first appeal -- just do not agree with him. He is like a dog with a bone and he will not give it up.
Why has the West been so slow to refute these conspiracy theorists? Duggan reminds me that other than a now-retired FBI agent, Richard Maquise (who is firmly of the opinion that though Megrahi did not act alone, he is guilty) all the other government officials involved in the case are unable to talk about it because they are still working and cannot comment. The strongly-worded letter from FBI Director Robert Mueller to MacAskill, calling MacAskill's decision a miscarriage of justice, was unprecedented -- a fact that seems to have been overlooked.
Ultimately however it is not the job of journalists to prove or disprove Megrahi's innocence. That is for the courts. An appeal didn't work once. It's easy for protesters to say it would work a second time, but Megrahi is running out of time.
By releasing him, the Scots have ensured we will never know the truth. Kenny MacAskill has indeed betrayed the American families. And as for the British government, when are they going to tell the truth? If Gordon Brown continues to hide and to lie, then he is just the same as Muammar Qaddafi, whose oil he covets, apparently at any price. New Jersey should ban him too.