Blame game since Lockerbie

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Libya is the land of make-believe, and from a safe distance it can seem comical. The 65-year-old teenager who runs the place, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, has an even stronger commitment to fashion than my 15-year-old daughter (although she has much better taste). But it’s a very ugly regime close up.

After eight years in a Libyan jail, Kristiana Valcheva was awakened at 4 in the morning last Tuesday and told that she would be freed. Two hours later she was on her way home to Bulgaria, where President Georgi Parvanov “pardoned” her, four other Bulgarian nurses, and a Palestinian doctor for crimes they had never committed.

“You know that hope dies last,” she said as the long nightmare ended. “We always had hope, although we were quite skeptical and were afraid to say it.”

Sofia even gave Bulgarian citizenship to the imprisoned Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hajouj, so that he could also benefit from the deal that the European Union cut with Gadhafi.

All’s well that ends well — except for the eight years stolen from the victims’ lives, and the shabby deal that was made to save Gadhafi from embarrassment.

Over a period of several years in the latter part of the 1990s, 438 children in a Benghazi hospital in eastern Libya were infected by HIV-contaminated blood transfusions. At least 56 of the children have died of AIDS. Similar tragedies have happened in other countries, and those who made the mistakes have been disciplined. But this was Libya, where it’s always the fault of foreign enemies if things go wrong.

So in 1999 the Libyans charged five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were working at the hospital with murder. Gadhafi claimed that they were working for the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, seeking to destabilize his regime by undermining confidence in Libyan health care. They all confessed to it, too, after they had been tortured for a while, but it was absurd: just another tin-pot dictator shifting the blame for his regime’s incompetence.

The HIV infections, which began before the six foreign scapegoats arrived in Libya, were probably due to poor hygiene in the hospital, but the foreigners were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Early this month, however, as part of a deal with the EU, the Libyan high court commuted their sentence to life imprisonment, then allowed them to go to Bulgaria to serve out their sentences. On arrival in Sofia, they were immediately “pardoned,” and the case was closed.

Nobody admitted any blame, nobody lost face, and no blackmail was paid. The fact that each of the 438 Libyan families involved will get $1 million from EU sources is purely coincidental.

Gadhafi may be a head case, but Libya still has some oil and his peccadilloes are overlooked. And before people in other places start feeling superior, let us recall another case involving Libya in which some blame may have been shifted.

On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Most were Americans, and it was initially suspected that Iran carried out the operation — possibly with the help of its Syrian ally — in revenge for the killing of 290 Iranians six months earlier aboard a civilian Iran Air flight that was shot down by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf. (The United States was backing Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, and the American warship mistakenly believed that it was under attack by the Iranian air force.)

U.S. and British investigators started building a case against Iran and Syria, but 1 1/2 years later Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, turning overnight from an ally to a U.S. enemy. In the U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait that was being planned, the cooperation of Iran and Syria was vital, so suddenly the Lockerbie investigation shifted focus to Libya.

In due course (about 10 years), two Libyan intelligence agents were brought to trial for the crime. In 2001 one of them, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Scotland, where the plane came down. Libya paid $2.7 billion in “compensation” to the victims’ families, without ever admitting guilt, but the verdict always smelled fishy.

Jim Swire, father of one of the victims on Pan Am 103, said: “I went into that court thinking I was going to see the trial of those who were responsible for the murder of my daughter. I came out thinking (al-Megrahi) had been framed.”

Late last month, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission declared al-Megrahi’s conviction “unsafe” and granted him the right to appeal the verdict because “the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.”

That may well be true, and it may not have been an accident either. But as former British Ambassador to Libya Oliver Miles told the BBC recently, “No court is likely get to the truth, now that various intelligence agencies have had the opportunity to corrupt the evidence.” And so it goes.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.