Why Britain Should Apologize for Releasing the Lockerbie Killer – and Why it Won’t.

I just received an email from a Madoff victim who is still reeling from the double-whammy of having watched his wealth vanish, and learning that the soft-spoken financier he considered a friend is in fact a crook – possibly it’s now been reported – with cancer. (Prison authorities deny this).

He wrote me: “I hope the government is smart enough not to do what Scotland did and give him compassionate release to fight his cancer.”


I am not Scottish but I am British – which, in terms of the disgraceful release of the Libyan Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, 57, jailed for killing the 270 people, mostly Americans, who died in the Lockerbie bombing – on “compassionate” grounds on account of his terminal cancer – is just as bad. No one I’ve spoken to in Britain believes that the Scots would have handed over a massive murderer who is a global symbol of state-sponsored terrorism, without checking it out with the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is, after all, Scottish. (And no, I do not buy the argument that the Scottish National Party was just following its “normal” legal trajectory in releasing him – there is nothing “normal” about the scope of this man’s crime; nor do I buy the argument that his conviction was about to be squashed, so they decided to let him out anyway. If that were actually true there would – and should – be a public detailed report showing the world, particularly the victims’ relatives, exactly what was unjust about locking him up in the first place.)

Then there are those damning insidious remarks of Libyan dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi thanking, among others, the Queen, Prince Andrew (a so-called “Special Representative” for British trade) and Brown for their assistance, as well as open admissions by British trade experts as to the “helpfulness” of the release, leaving many to conclude, despite denials, that the deal was done in exchange for Libyan oil.

As a Briton who has lived in the US for twelve years, I feel strongly that we should apologize unreservedly to all families who lost their loved ones in the bombing. This, however, is unlikely to happen. Instead the British government will lay all the responsibility at the feet of the Scots and find a diversion as fast as possible. (Am I the only one sufficiently cynical to find it utterly fascinating that Gordon Brown should choose this moment, above all others, to pontificate here on the Huffington Post about how much he cares about promoting Womens’ rights – particularly in Africa?)

I hate to admit it, but the truth is my country has an appalling record when it comes to choosing between trade and moral principles.

For exhibit A, I give you the sudden closure in 2006 of the investigation by the British Serious Fraud Office into the alleged bribery of Saudi officials by executives at British Aerospace (BAE) in the 1988 $64 billion arms deal known as Al Yamamah (The Dove).

Though then British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted the inquiry was not closed for “economic” reasons – (“national security” was cited instead) – most people believed that the chief reason the investigation, which was honing in on relevant Swiss bank accounts, suddenly stopped, was because the Saudis threatened to back out of a new arms deal with BAE, known as Typhoon, for 72 fighter planes and billions of dollars. Last year it was revealed that the Saudis had also threatened to withdraw cooperation in terrorism matters – but who is to know what mattered most in the eyes of the British government? As the late Robin Cook, who had served as Foreign secretary to Blair, wrote sarcastically in his 2003 memoir: “ I never once knew No 10 [home of the British Prime Minister] to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace. ”

Because the BAE investigation was largely a localized British (and obviously Saudi) issue the national press reacted angrily for a while but then the brouhaha died down. (The US Justice Department is said to be picking through the alleged money laundering aspect – supposedly done through the now defunct DC bank, Riggs Bank – but when was the last time we heard about that?)

From England, my father tells me that the release of the Lockerbie bomber will soon too be forgotten. “I think the government thinks there will be a ten-day fuss and then everyone will move on,” he said. He added with a resigned tone. “You have to remember we are run by a bunch of complete incompetents.”

Incompetents who don’t even put something as tumultuous and divisive as releasing a mass murderer who also happens to be a global political hot potato, to a vote? …Americans may either be weary of or sickened by the current healthcare reform uproar – but at least this side of the Atlantic there is a public debate about things that matter.

Imagine if Bernie Madoff were to have cancer and as my acquaintance, his victim, put it, he were to be released like the Lockerbie killer? There would, no doubt, rightly be outrage in the streets.

Americans should be proud that they live in a place where protest is still vibrant and, unlike my father, they don’t feel hopelessly repressed and depressed. And as for me? On behalf of my countrymen, I apologize – unreservedly. V

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