The official Libyan reaction to the Lockerbie trial verdict has been confused and inconsistent. Libyan government spokesmen variously expressed respect for Scottish justice, accepted and rejected the trial verdict, agreed and refused to pay compensation to the victims' families and strongly protested the innocence of Muammar Gadafy's man in Valletta, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.
Colonel Gadafy himself has promised to produce "new evidence" proving Megrahi's innocence. Once they hear his evidence, he said, the Scottish judges would have no alternative but to commit suicide (presumably as atonement for their grave folly), resign or admit their mistake. Why Col Gadafy failed to produce this evidence before or during the trial remains a mystery.
The trial verdict delivered last week may yet go down in history as a most astute decision. It gives every party in this case a cause for celebration. The judges were clear in admitting that there were a number of "uncertainties and qualifications" in the evidence, but having considered the whole case, they found that it fitted together to form a convincing pattern that left them with no "reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the first accused".
The judges were very discerning in treating the accused as two separate individuals, convicting one and acquitting the other purely on the basis of the evidence brought before them. They rejected the evidence of the prosecution "star witness", a Libyan suspected of being a CIA agent. They quashed the argument that the trial was part of a wider conspiracy by the American and British governments and media to implicate Col Gadafy's regime. By not acquitting both men, they put paid to the claims of a pre-trial deal with Col Gadafy. And, by shrewdly depoliticising the trial, they have reasserted the integrity and independence of the Scottish judicial system. From Col Gadafy's point of view, however, one conviction is just as ominous as two.
Nevertheless, the trial has not solved all the complex riddles of the Lockerbie tragedy. No one believes that Megrahi was acting alone, simply because he could not have planned and executed such an operation on his own. The idea that Libyan intelligence was working with other accomplices, a Palestinian group, Syrian or Iranian agents, remains a distinct possibility. But this does not make the evidence against Megrahi any less compelling; nor does it exonerate his Libyan masters, headed by the colonel himself, from complicity in this heinous crime.
Several Middle Eastern groups and governments harbour serious, some might say justifiable, anti-American grudges and any of them could have masterminded or participated in such a conspiracy. But the fact that no evidence was presented to the court to incriminate anyone else only goes to show that the Libyans were the weakest and the least efficient link in that sordid chain and, therefore, the most likely to be caught.
No wonder Col Gadafy feels cheated and is busy looking for scapegoats. Not only did his fellow conspirators let him down, but his intelligence service has now been exposed as incompetent. His handling of the whole Lockerbie affair since 1990 has been a litany of blunders. When the charges were first brought against the two Libyans in 1991, Col Gadafy refused to hand them over for trial, precipitating a crippling air embargo against Libya and further deterioration of the country's reputation and prestige. Eight years later, however, he willingly and triumphantly did so.
I t is now quite clear that both decisions reflect a supreme error of judgment. Col Gadafy yet again seems to be about to compound his gross miscalculations by producing, at this late hour, "new evidence" purporting to prove Megrahi's innocence.
Col Gadafy's sole concern has always been to avoid being personally implicated or blamed, and that is the reason he is seeking a way out of this mess. Whenever Libya suffered a disaster or a setback, a frequent occurrence over the past 25 years, Col Gadafy would find someone else to blame. Now more than ever, that someone is needed, even from within his own regime.
Street demonstrations organised in Libya over the past couple of days by Col Gadafy's Revolutionary Committees condemned the Scottish judges and blamed the Libyan government and its foreign ministry for the debacle. But it was Col Gadafy's decision, made public at the time, not to hand over the suspects in 1991 and it was his personal decision to do so in 1999, so he must surely take full responsibility for the way he has mishandled this whole affair.
Many questions will remain unanswered. Who was behind Megrahi? Will those who perpetrated this monstrosity ever be brought to justice?
We also need to ask whether it is any coincidence that Col Gadafy's agents have featured in almost every major terrorist atrocity over the past 25 or so years. Is it a coincidence that his regime, while protesting its innocence, has either paid or offered to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the victims? The truth of the matter is that since the early 70s, the regime has deliberately set out to adopt terrorism and subversion as state policy against Libyans and non-Libyans all over the world to further its worldwide revolutionary objectives. Col Gadafy sees himself as a man of destiny, a prophet and a leader of global revolution. During the past 30 years, the bulk of Libya's financial and state resourceshas been deployed to promote his megalomania. Even now, Col Gadafy is spending a great deal of Libya's oil money to create a "United States of Africa", presumably with himself as its first president.
Now that his terrorist policies have failed and his contorted view of world revolution has backfired, Col Gadafy has made the mistake of thinking that by simply renouncing terrorism, the world is going to take his word for it and forgive him.
The memory of Lockerbie, together with those of the murder of WPC Fletcher in London in 1984 and the bombing of the French airliner in 1989, to mention but a few, are not likely to go away. In this case at least, as one mother of a Lockerbie victim put it: "There's no way that Libya can now say they weren't involved."
Col Gadafy's sordid past is catching up with him. It will haunt him for a long time to come. Realpolitik, expediency and greed may make some in Britain and the US call for his rehabilitation. Col Gadafy himself may be wishing, or even willing, to forget the past, turn a new page and go straight. But how much should he be allowed to get away with?
Ashur Shamis is a Libyan writer and journalist.