On the Eve of the Trial

TRUTH Quest 2 Volume 12, Issue 1 - March 2000

by Helen Engelhardt

On the first day of spring, State Department Terrorism Chief, Michael Sheehan spoke to the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 via a conference call. We were informed, AFTER the news media were alerted, that the State Department is sending a four person consular delegation to Libya for the purpose of assessing safety procedures for travel to Libya by American ‘citizens’ (oil citizens?) and lifting restrictions on passport applications.

Four State Department officials traveled to Libya Wednesday to decide whether the restrictions should be lifted. During their 26-hour stay, the officials assessed security at airports, hotels and hospitals and also conferred with foreign diplomats resident in Tripoli. No meeting was planned with Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. George Williams sent a letter to Vice-President Gore on March 21, 2000 protesting this most unexpected and distressing development.

Dear Vice-President Gore:

We family members of those murdered on Pan Am 103 find the timing of this visit to be purposely planned to have a deliberately deleterious effect on the pending trial of the two Libyans accused of the massacre. The trial is to start on May 3, 2000, less than six weeks away.

Why would the Clinton-Gore administration initiate such a disgusting mission at such an important time in the lives of all the family members if not to make a statement destined to damage the outcome of the trial of Fhimah and Megrahi?

This move comes after nearly twelve years of heartbreaking, health breaking pressure on all of us, merely to be relegated to the position of minor players in this momentous trial-of-the century. The Clinton-Gore administration has withheld a ‘secret’ letter involving a deal between Kofi Annan and Qadhaffi; a deal ratified by the U.K. and the U.S., which we feel, absolves Qadhafi of all responsibility in the murder of our loved-ones.

This letter and its annex must be released to public scrutiny PRIOR to the trial date. We intend to see that the maximum amount of political fallout is placed at your doorstep. We have trusted the Clinton-Gore administration for eleven years. That trust has now twice been violated. We will not take this lying down.

He was not the only person protesting this unseemly move on the part of our government. During our eleven years of struggling for justice and bearing witness for those who were murdered, we tend to forget that other people are our allies; have also suffered at the hands of Qadaffi’s despotic regime - Libyans and Libyan Americans. I am reprinting in full a letter which was sent to the Secretary of State:

Dear Madeleine Albright,

I have read, with mixed emotions, the announcement made by Mr. Michael Sheehan, of the State Department yesterday regarding your plans to send officials to Tripoli to assess whether it is safe for Americans to visit there. On the one hand, I, as a Libyan American, feel it will be a positive step to re-establish travel links to Libya. Allowing for travel of American citizens there and allowing our family members to also travel to the United States to visit us. On the other hand, I am quite distressed that while the State Department has, as it should absolutely do, taken the time to brief the families the victims of the PAN AM tragedy on these plans. No step was taken to consult with nor even mention the 1000’s of Libyan Americans whose lives are and will be immediately affected by your overtures toward one of the most despotic regimes in the world. Despite our (all Libyans, inside and outside of Libya) deep and legitimate grievances against the Libyan regime and our belief that it is hard for the leopard to change its spots, I sincerely believe that what all Libyan Americans are concerned with is not so much a general ‘no contact’ policy with the Libyan regime. But that our legitimate concerns are taken into account when the US government, corporations, and non-governmental organizations deal with or meet with representatives of the Libyan regime. In more specific words, we are not calling for a total boycott of Libya, far from it. What we are saying is, dealing with the Libyan government carries with it significant implications for Libyan Americans, and as such they need to be included and consulted and their legitimate concerns taken into account and mentioned, by US officials, to the representatives of the Libyan dictator whenever they meet. Let me take a moment to highlight for you some of these concerns as I see them:

1 - Having representatives of the Libyan regime, or even a possibly diplomatic mission in the future, here in the US, will immediately raise alarms in our community regarding our personal safety. The Libyan regime has advocated and carried out a well-documented campaign of what it calls "physical liquidation" of its opponents throughout the world. Indeed in the late 1970s they had even tried and failed to kill a Libyan living the United States. Not to mention the many Libyans who were shot and killed in major world capitals like London, Rome, Athens among others. The Libyan regime has yet to denounce that official policy publicly.

2 - The law of "collective punishment" passed a few years ago by the Libyan regime and which basically legitimizes the punishment of family members and friends of outspoken opponents of the government who are beyond the reach of the security services of Col. Gaddafi, puts our families at risk in Libya for anything we may say or do here. In other words, our own families and friends back home are held hostage by the Libyan government to intimidate us and silence our voices. In fact, my own family is at risk, simply because I am writing you this open letter. This law, as it is abundantly clear, not only is a moral outrage and an offense to every moral code, it, in act, violates our rights as American citizens to freedom of speech here in the US. The price we may pay for our own constitutional rights here, may well be the imprisonment and torture of our family members back home.

3 - There is also the issue of Mr. Mansour El-Kikhia, who has disappeared and widely believed by all, including the US government as acknowledged publicly by the State Department, to have been handed over by the Egyptian government to Libya and killed by the Libyan government a few weeks later. This is a man who was only 3 months away from becoming an American citizen, not to mention his prominence as a human-rights activist and public figure. The Libyan American community is still waiting for the promised results of a supposed investigation of his disappearance by the Egyptian authorities. The failure of the US government to even demand results from that investigation is beyond a moral outrage and bordering on complicity in his murder. I urge you to call on the Egyptian government to make the results of that investigation public.

4 - There is also the plight of the American families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing, who have a very strong affinity with the Libyan American community, as victims of Gaddafi’s terrorism. Both communities have felt and paid heavy tolls because of the terror of this despotic regime.

5 - Let me also remind you that most Libyan Americans are still unable to go home and visit their families back in Libya for fear that they may disappear or be killed at the hands of the regime, simply because of their choice to live and work in the United States or because they express views that are contrary to those of Gaddafi. Beyond all these issues that immediately and directly concern the Libyan-American community, there is the larger moral and human issue of the thousands of prisoners of conscience still languishing in the jails of Gaddafi without a trial or any legal protection, and the many thousands who have been killed and disappeared, some openly in public squares, over the past 30 years without any form of justice given nor even promised to their families.

I implore you, Madam Secretary, to please include our concerns in any talks or contacts with the Libyan regime. If Gaddafi wishes to return to the civilized world and international community, then the cause of the Libyan people, and the other victims of his terrorism, must not be forgotten or ignored.

Ali Alrida

George Williams sent a letter in support of Ali Alrida to the Secretary of State:

We, the families of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, wish to add our voices to the message from the Libyan expatriates. This move, by the State Department and the Clinton-Gore administration, comes at a most inopportune time. We suspect ulterior motives on the part of the Gore political campaign. To do this just six weeks before the Pan Am 103 trial of the two Libyans, for the murder of our loved ones borders on the obscene. The trial at Kamp von Zeist (not ‘The Hague’) will be damaged beyond repair by this move; but we suspect that to be the whole point of this exercise of betrayal by the Clinton-Gore people.

To Ali Alrida I say, Bravo Ali. Keep up the information barrage, aimed at the State Department of Clinton-Gore and their unquestioning allies in Congress.

Ali replied with this letter addressed to us:

Thank you for your continued commitment to justice for your loved ones and ever present support of our efforts as Libyans fighting for our rights. Above all, thank you for keeping the public pressure on the dictator of Libya. God, in his wisdom has destined us both to share the same fight, against the same evil. The road we are all on may be long and hard, but our cause is just and our faith & hope, in God’s ever-present mercy and support, is unshakable. All I wish to tell you all, is that your suffering is being shared by countless Mothers and Fathers, and an endless number of Libyan families, whose loved ones were murdered or disappeared on the hands of the same murderers.

Please keep speaking out, and please don’t forget to always remember that there is a huge difference between Libya and that tyrant: Gaddafi.

Most sincerely your friend,
Ali Alrida

And this is what State Department spokesman Mr. James Rubin had to say about the purposes of this trip to Libya, at a press briefing held on March 22:

QUESTION: "Is there anything that you want to add on your statements yester-day about the trip to Libya?"

MR. RUBIN: "The Secretary has authorized these four officials to travel to Libya for a single purpose, and that is to assess safety conditions for Americans. It’s very important for people to recognize that the Secretary of State’s authority to restrict the validity of passports only occurs in three cases: when there are armed hostilities, when there is imminent danger to the public, or safety of travelers.

And the law specifically says that the passport restrictions are not intended to be used as foreign policy tools or sanctions. So if the assessment leads to a change in the travel restriction, that is not an easing of sanctions, by definition, and so those who may see it that way should be urged to take another look at the law and how it’s applied.

This is a visit that follows up on a recommendation and an assessment about changed conditions on the ground in terms of Libyan Government behavior, in terms of the number of Europeans who have been traveling, and the Secretary thought it would be appropriate to have this one visit. This is not about Libyan policy in general. The United States does not believe that Libya has satisfied all the requirements necessary to be removed from the terror-ism list. Although there have been some positive steps, there remain substantial and significant steps remaining for Libya to take, including disassociation with this action reflects a larger policy question on Libya is simply incorrect."

QUESTION: "There are family members of Pan Am 103 who believe that the timing of this visit is somewhat inopportune with the trial only six weeks away."

MR. RUBIN: "Well, with respect to the timing and the trial, let me say that any time we’re dealing with a situation like this with family members it is a difficult circumstance. They obviously lost loved ones and family members, and anything related to Libya is obviously a question of concern.

We worked very, very hard to get this trial. The Secretary of State personally intervened on numerous occasions to get this trial that the families richly deserve, and the trial is going to be under Scottish justice. So we have worked very hard on their behalf and we will continue to work hard on their behalf, but with respect to this question they are just going to have to believe us that it’s unrelated. The timing is more related to the assessment provided to the Secretary last fall that indicated that there were changed conditions on the ground... although we do recognize how painful any question related to Libya is for members of the families who lost people in the terrible act of terrorism."

QUESTION: "Can I just ask, to go back to Libya, the assessment that the Secretary is responding to, did that come from within the Department?"

MR. RUBIN: Conditions are regularly reported to her about these questions, and last November they were reported that there were significant changes -Despite those assessments, she decided to extend the travel restriction but asked to be kept regularly informed about conditions...So rather than seeing it as six weeks before the trial, if that is indeed what it becomes, it’s more like several months after she extended the restriction despite the fact that some objective conditions had changed.

I will let Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post speak on behalf of all us from his column, which appeared on Sunday March 26, 2000."

The Clinton administration has for more than a year been slowly shifting from a policy of isolating and punishing Libya to a policy of exploring whether the North African state can be rehabilitated and its oil made available to U.S. markets once again. In the most transparent move yet, the State Department dispatched four officials to Tripoli Wednesday to judge whether Americans can safely travel to a country that few realize has been off-limits to them since 1981.

The diplomats’ safe return this weekend will presumably be evidence in the affirmative. Then a recommendation will go to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to remove or keep the official ban on U.S. travel to that inhospitable, barren land. Sheehan insistently discounted the importance of this trip, and Albright may yet decide to keep the ban on.

But this maneuvering must be viewed for what it is: a piece in a pattern of endgame diplomacy by the Clinton administration. Improving relations with states once known as rogues and lifting or easing sanctions where possible (with the exception of still politically useful Cuba) has become an undeclared but important objective for the Clintonites. The push to close the books on the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, and other Libyan misdeeds is in part a response to pressure on the White House from Britain, Egypt and U.S. oil companies, all of which argue the case for rewarding Moammar Gadhafi’s recent abstinence from terrorist exploits.

But it also reflects President Clinton’s concern over the diplomatic and humanitarian effects of open-ended sanctions. "The lack of international consensus on sanctions and the costs that brings has bothered him for some time," says one well-placed official. There is a case to be made for reviewing and adjusting U.S. sanctions as conditions change: Clinton has in fact allowed Albright to make that case publicly and persuasively on Iran. She has skillfully mixed approval of a trend to internal democracy with strictures about Iran’s continuing depredations abroad and let the public judge each step as it is taken.

But there is no similar intellectual honesty on Libya. There seems to be instead a stealth policy to bring change but not accept political responsibility for giving up on confronting the dictator who would have had to authorize Libyan participation in the bombing. Last year the White House overrode skepticism from Justice Department officials and other opposition within the administration and agreed to Gadhafi’s terms for a trial of two Libyan underlings in The Hague, under Scottish law. Their trial begins in May. "There was an unvoiced sense in these meetings that the Pan Am 103 families had to get over it and move on with their lives. The trial would help with that as well as with our diplomatic objectives," said one official who participated in the contentious high-level interagency sessions. "But if these two are acquitted, it is all over. There will be no more investigations, and no more international pressure on Gadhafi. It is a huge risk."

Worse: It is a huge risk that Bill Clinton is willing to take but not explain honestly to the American people. For shame, Mr. President.