The United States encountered its first setback in dealing with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebels’ representative body, when it refused to extradite Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber on Sunday. The same day, a CNN journalist discovered the fugitive from American justice sick in bed at his family’s villa in Tripoli, apparently “near death.”
It is doubtful that the rebel leadership’s initial refusal to extradite al-Megrahi was made on compassionate grounds, since the announcement not to extradite was made several hours before he was located and made no mention of his medical condition. When making its refusal known, it is unclear whether the NTC even knew of al-Megrahi’s whereabouts. Moreover, in making the announcement, the rebel body’s justice minister, Mohammad al-Alagi, was responding to the request by US senators last week to hold and put on trial again the man responsible for the deaths of 190 American citizens.
“We will not hand over any Libyan citizen. It was Gaddafi who handed over Libyan citizens,” said al-Alagi on Sunday. Al-Alagi added the senators’ request also had “no meaning,” since al-Megrahi had already been found guilty of the crime in Scotland.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in Great Britain in 2000 of the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people, including 190 Americans. He served only eight years of the life sentence he received from a British court before his controversial release on compassionate grounds in August, 2009.
The public was told he had cancer and would die within three months. That was two years ago. The families of al-Megrahi’s victims were angered by the British decision to free the murderer of their loved ones, especially when they saw him receiving a hero’s welcome when he returned to Libya.
The anger increased when it emerged that al-Megrahi was most likely released in exchange for oil and trade deals. A prisoner exchange agreement was also conveniently signed between Great Britain and Libya at this time to clear the way for al-Megrahi’s return home. The British oil giant, British Petroleum, admitted lobbying for the exchange agreement, having signed a large oil exploration deal with Libya in 2007.
For its part, the Obama administration publicly expressed anger at the British decision. President Obama said Americans were “surprised, disappointed and angry” at news of the release. But it later transpired that the president knew about the British decision in advance, but wanted al-Megrahi kept in Scotland when freed from prison rather than Britain sending him back to Libya.
Americans should not be surprised, however, at the NTC initially blocking justice for the Lockerbie victims and their families. Abdel-Jalil was Gaddafi’s justice minister from 2007 to 2011, which pretty much says it all. He became head of the NTC because he was the first high government official to join the rebel cause. This occurred after Gaddafi had sent him to Benghazi at the rebellion’s outbreak to negotiate the release of hostages the rebels had seized.
While in Gaddafi’s employ, Abdel-Jalil reportedly received his promotion to minister’s rank for his involvement in a notorious trial in Libya, which involved European citizens. As the appeals court judge for the case, Abdel-Jalil twice confirmed the death sentence for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been falsely accused of injecting 438 children in a Libyan children’s hospital with the HIV virus on the orders of the United States and Israel.
A Bulgarian journalist who covered the trial, speaking with a French newspaper, called Abdel-Jalil “a (Gaddafi) loyalist among the loyalists,” who was rewarded for his legal “intransigence” with the minister’s position. The journalist added that Abdel-Jalil is also not the only one currently in the rebel ranks who “expressed their loyalty to the regime and demanded death by hanging” for the nurses. And it was a sycophantic loyalty they had already been “clearly displaying for dozens of years.”
Before Abdel-Jalil’s enlightened judicial decisions, in what was supposed to be a good, full-blooded, no-nonsense show trial that would have made Joseph Stalin proud, all six accused courageously repudiated their confessions before the Libyan People’s Court, saying they had been extracted under torture (this claim was later confirmed by Seif al-Gaddafi, one of Muammar’s son). During their eight and a half years of imprisonment, the nurses also accused their interrogators of rape.
“We were left alone with those men who did everything they wanted to,” said one imprisoned nurse at the time in an interview with Human Rights Watch.
But all this made no impression on Abdel-Jalil, who upheld the decision to have the six innocent victims shot by firing squad in 2004. The fact the Palestinian doctor was probably standing in front of him with a damaged eye and a crippled hand, souvenirs of Gaddafi’s dungeons, apparently caused him no pangs of conscience. With Seif al-Gaddafi’s admission, however, it is obvious that Libyans like Abdel-Jalil knew of the nurses’ innocence all along.
Like with the Lockerbie bomber, the nurses’ release was linked to business deals. Only days after his first wife escorted the nurses back to Bulgaria, French President Nicolas Sarkozy shamefully hastened to Libya to arrange the sale of a nuclear reactor and weapons to Gaddafi. Both scandalous incidents were simply cases of dollars for dishonor.
But America is not the only country interested in a wanted fugitive in Libya. The Sudan Tribune, citing a local newspaper, reports that Sudan’s intelligence chief visited Libya last week to speak with the NTC. Sudan is apparently interested in Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the resistance groups in Darfur fighting the central government’s genocide there. Ibrahim has been “confined” at a Libyan military base since 2009.
Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who, like Gaddafi, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), has been supporting the NTC in the Libyan conflict and probably views Ibrahim’s extradition as a reward for that support. It will now be interesting to see whether the JEM leader will be handed over to the Sudanese after the NTC had refused to do so with al-Megrahi.
The reasons behind the NTC’s initial announcement not to grant the American senators’ request and extradite the Lockerbie bomber may concern Libyan internal politics. The rebel council may have wanted to come to an agreement with al-Megrahi’s tribe, Gaddafi’s strongest ally in the conflict. Or it may have been worried about a violent reaction from the anti-Western Islamists in its ranks.
It is also unknown whether anyone in the rebel leadership, which most likely contains unsavoury types and thugs like al-Megrahi, is a personal friend of the Lockerbie bomber and may wish to protect him. Moreover, al-Megrahi may have information he could reveal to the Americans about Libya’s new leaders they would not want anyone to know.
Whatever the reason, as the danger from Gaddafi recedes, America’s frustrations with a NTC under Abdel-Jalil will probably increase. The NTC’s confidence in initially turning down the American request probably rests on its knowledge that Libya contains the largest oil reserves in Africa, and foreign governments are now trying to curry its favour to make exploration deals and sign rebuilding contracts. Strikingly similar behavior to the old regime the NTC is replacing.
As for Abdel-Jalil, the NTC’s refusal to extradite al-Megrahi indicates he still possesses the same lack of a sense of justice and personal qualities he demonstrated in the Bulgarian nurses’ case. Willingness to address America’s concerns and gratefulness for American assistance in defeating Gaddafi seem to have evaporated like water in the desert, even before the guns have gone silent. This does not bode well for Libya’s future and for American relations with its new government.
As for al-Megrahi, the Obama administration says it is still the NTC’s decision whether to extradite the mass murderer, but it would like the rebel council to decide as soon as possible.
“We asked the (NTC) to, as soon as it can, take a hard look at what it thinks ought to happen with Mr. Megrahi and it has committed to that,” said a State Department spokeswoman.
The NTC, softening its line, said on Monday the Lockerbie Bomber’s fate will be left up to Libya’s new government after elections are held. It called its initial, hard-line position “…a misinterpretation of a statement by Mr. Alagi.” With the decision’s postponement until then, it is obvious the NTC is playing for time, hoping al-Megrahi will die, thus solving an embarrassing diplomatic problem.
But while this may bring closure for Libya’s new government, for many of al-Megrahi’s victims’ families, both in America and elsewhere, the open wounds of his evil deed will always remain.