Gaddafi’s Libya as Demon

The current ideology to justify aggressive war is based on a dogmatic dichotomy between Democracy and Dictators.  The pro-war party in the West has been shifting the center of international law and order from the United Nations to a more exclusive club of “democracies” which alone have “legitimacy”.  The core of this club is the English-speaking world, plus Israel, the European Union, and Japan.  This “International Community” of democracies is understood to possess the unique moral right to decide when the leader of any country outside their charmed circle may be denounced as a “dictator” and overthrown with the help of a NATO bombing campaign.

This ideology assumes that Democracies respect human rights, whereas dictators by definition are criminals who systematically violate human rights and may be contemplating “genocide against their own people”.  Certain details, such as the fact that the United States has the largest prison population in the world in both absolute and relative terms, and uses convicts for cheap labor in the arms industry, are not allowed to interfere with this dualistic world view.

The mainstream media maintain this dichotomy by sustained bias in their coverage of countries labeled “dictatorships” – which may include some countries whose leaders are in fact elected, such as Venezuela, Russia, Serbia under Milosevic, Belarus, but who attempt to follow policies contrary to the dictates of the self-designated “International Community”.  Not all such countries may actually by attacked militarily, but the image created will make military attack easily justifiable if and when the time comes.

Selective reporting reduces the country to its Dictator and a minority of “pro-democracy protesters”.  The Dictator is portrayed as a criminal, with no virtues that could possibly justify any popular support within his own country.

The Case of Libya

The case of Libya illustrates the way this works.  Decades of one-sided media coverage firmly established Libyan leader Moammer Gaddafi as an insane criminal.  To the Western public whose only knowledge of Libya came from Western media reports, it would seem obvious that the Libyan people must unanimously want to get rid of such a leader.

It is obvious that there are people in Libya who hate Gaddafi and want to get rid of him.  What is not obvious is exactly what they want to put in his place and just how representative they really are of the population as a whole.

In the West, the main reason to hate Gaddafi in recent years has been the Lockerbie bombing. For two decades, the allegation that the Libyan leader was responsible for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has been kept in the public eye by mainstream media.

Last February, leaders of the emerging rebellion in Libya gave interviews with Western media claiming to have documentary proof that Gaddafi ordered the terrorist attack that killed 270 people.  Mustafa Abdel Jalil, former Libyan justice minister who heads the “National Transitional Council” in Benghazi told The Daily Telegraph that: “The orders were given by Gaddafi himself”.

Few in the West are likely to object that if the NTC leaders really possess such proof , they have been complicit in the crime for decades.  Nor will Western media raise the question as to why the wily Gaddafi would leave “documentary proof” of orders to commit a terrorist act lying around for 23 years.

These claims serve to bond the NTC leaders with the Western powers, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, and to suggest a community of legality between them against “the criminal Gaddafi”.  They help build the fiction of “legitimate, representative leaders of the Libyan people” whose views of human rights, democracy and the misdeeds of the evil dictator Gaddafi coincide with Western attitudes, as expressed by Western politicians and media.

By implication, the Libyan people have known all along that their leader is a mass murderer.  This must be one reason the decent citizens want to get rid of him.  But is this true?

Lockerbie in Libya

My visit to Libya in January 2007, to attend an international conference on the International Criminal Court, gave me the opportunity to hold private conversations with a number of well-educated Libyans who clearly knew a lot more about the West than the West knew about them.  I was particularly interested in getting the take of unofficial Libyan citizens on two issues that at the time dominated Western perception of Libya: Lockerbie and the affair of the Bulgarian nurses.  I should mention that I never got near Gaddafi, and the conference was sponsored by academics who held diverse opinions on important issues, often unlike those of the Leader, which didn’t seem to bother anyone.  But on the issue of Lockerbie, I discovered two general widespread points of agreement.

On the one hand, nobody believed that Libya was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing.  It was taken for granted that Libya had been unfairly accused for political reasons.

On the other hand, it was clear that the sanctions imposed by the West to punish Libya for its alleged guilt had caused hardship and discontent. The power of the West both to impose sanctions and to project its images amounts to serious interference in the domestic politics of targeted countries, since very many people, especially the young, want to live in a “normal” country and may resent leaders who cause them to be treated as pariahs by the West.  Therefore, it was understood that Gaddafi had finally given in to Western pressure to accept responsibility – but not guilt – for Lockerbie merely in order to get the unpopular sanctions lifted.  The fact that he agreed to turn over two Libyan citizens to a Western court to be tried for the crime and to pay over two billion dollars of compensation to the victims was explicitly not an admission of guilt, but rather a response to blackmail by Great Powers in order to normalize relations and improve daily life.

This did not surprise me, since over the years I had read a lot about the Lockerbie case.   Indeed, a great deal has been written exposing the weakness of the prosecution’s case, based on a totally implausible scenario (a bomb to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight was allegedly sent via airports in Malta, Frankfurt and London), technical “evidence” that had been tampered with by CIA agents, and a witness who was richly rewarded for testimony which did not fit the facts.   All this has been told many times, for instance Andrew Cockburn in the CounterPunch newsletter, or the London Review of Books,  “The Framing of al-Megrahi” by British lawyer Gareth Peirce. But the fact that the case has been repeatedly exposed by careful analysis as a probable frame-up has not made the slightest impression on mainstream media and politicians who continue to blast Gaddafi as the monster who ordered the Lockerbie massacre.

One may add that at the time of the event in 1988, it was widely assumed that Iran had ordered the attack in retaliation for U.S. downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf.  When the United States, switching from its anti-Iran alliance with Iraq to war against Saddam Hussein, decided to accuse Libya instead, no motive was ever produced.  But when a “dictator” has been stigmatized as a monster, no motive is needed.  He just did it because that is the sort of thing evil dictators are supposed to do.

The two accused Libyan airline employees working in Malta had been put on trial in 2000 by three Scottish judges without a jury in a specially built court in the Netherlands.  One of the Libyans was acquitted and the other, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison. The United Nations observer at this peculiar trial, Hans Köchler, called the guilty verdict “incomprehensible”, “arbitrary, even irrational” and noted “an air of international power politics” surrounding the proceedings.

On November 12, 2006, the Glasgow Sunday Herald quoted top State Department legal advisor Michael Scharf, who was the counsel to the US counter-terrorism bureau when the two Libyans were indicted for the bombing, as calling the case “so full of holes it was like Swiss cheese” and said it should never have gone to trial. He claimed the CIA and FBI had assured State Department officials there was an “iron-clad” case against the two Libyans, but that in reality the intelligence agencies knew well in advance of the trial that their star witness was “a liar”.  But Great Powers can’t back down. Their sacred “credibility” is at stake.  In short, they must keep lying to preserve the illusion of infallibility.

At the time I was in Tripoli, the defense team of the convicted Libyan was trying to appeal the conviction to a higher court. I was able to call on one of the lawyers on Megrahi’s defense team.  I spent a long time in her office, trying to overcome her reluctance to speak about the case.  Finally, she agreed to talk to me when I promised to keep our conversation to myself, so as not to risk harming the appeal.  By now, the circumstances have changed drastically.

Here, briefly, is what she told me.

The Scottish judges were under enormous pressure to convict the two Libyans. After all, for years their guilt had been trumpeted by the United States demanding that they be “brought to justice”. A special court had been set up with the obvious purpose of convicting them.  Yet the evidence which would merit conviction in a proper Scottish court was simply not there.  The best the judges dared to do was to acquit one of the defendants and pass along the responsibility for acquitting the other to a higher court.  But to the dismay of the Libyan defense team, the designated court of appeals evaded the dangerous issue by disqualifying itself.  So now an appeal was being prepared for another high court, complete with new evidence further discrediting the prosecution case.

And in fact, five months later, on June 28, 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which had been investigating the case since 2003, recommended that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi be granted a second appeal against his conviction. The Commission said it had uncovered six separate grounds for considering that the conviction may have been an injustice. The announcement caused a sensation in the small circles following the affair. It seemed that Scottish justice was courageous enough to assert itself and allow hearings that would expose the CIA frame-up.

That sort of thing may happen in movies, but the real world is something else.

A sordid bargain

What happened after that helped set the stage for the NATO attack on Libya this year.

Time passed. It was two years later, in April 2009, that the appeal finally was due to get underway. But meanwhile, behind the scenes, secret bargaining was going on, amid leaks and rumors.

On August 21, 2009, on grounds that he was suffering from terminal cancer, Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland by the Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill and allowed to “go home to die”.

Now, it so happens that in 2007, Tony Blair went to Libya to negotiate a British-Libyan agreement with Gaddafi covering law, extradition and prisoner transfer.  Under this Prisoner Transfer Agreement, Libyan authorities asked for Megrahi to be sent home due to his illness.

The catch was that the Prisoner Transfer Agreement could be applied only when no legal proceedings were outstanding.  So in order to benefit from it, Megrahi had to drop his appeal.

The matter is confused by the fact that he was formally released on “compassionate” grounds.  One way or another, the deal was clear: al-Megrahi could go home, but the appeal was dead. Hans Kochler, UN-appointed special observer to the Lockerbie trial, thought Megrahi may have been subjected to “morally outrageous” blackmail to abandon his appeal against his will.

The sordid aspect of this bargain is that it deprived Megrahi of the right to clear his name, while leaving the CIA frame-up officially unexposed. There was nothing to counter the chorus of protestations from Hillary Clinton on down denouncing Scotland for having “freed the Lockerbie bomber”.  Two years later, news that Megrahi has failed to die has elicited further indignation from Western media, who see this as proof that the UK had “sold the Lockerbie bomber for Libyan oil”.  Naturally, the impression must be conveyed that the sly Libyan dictator tricked the naïve but greedy Brits into selling out their principles for petroleum.

But it is just as likely that it was the naïve Libyan dictator who was tricked by the unscrupulous British into thinking he had made a “gentleman’s agreement”. Rather than pursue an appeal which risked causing acute embarrassment to Western authorities, Megrahi could be released and the matter forgotten. The popular rejoicing at Megrahi’s return home was muted in Libya, but Western media pretended to be scandalized that a convicted mass murderer received a hero’s welcome.  In reality, he was welcomed home discreetly as an innocent man who had been unjustly convicted, not as a mass murderer.  And whenever he has been able to make himself heard, he has reiterated his desire to clear his name.

The Bulgarian nurses

The other subject I asked about while I was in Tripoli in 2007 was the plight of the Bulgarian nurses. In 2004, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor working in a Benghazi hospital were sentenced to death for allegedly having infected children with the HIV virus.  Everyone in the West, myself included, assumed this was an outrageous injustice. When I raised the issue with highly Westernized, liberal Libyan intellectuals, I fully expected to hear strong criticism of the dictator for persecuting defenseless health workers.  I was quite surprised when the reaction was somewhat different.

“Of course they are innocent”, I said.

The gentleman with whom I was talking, whom I could loosely describe as anti-Gaddafi, shook his head.  “That’s not so clear”, he replied.  And so I began to learn what was explained a few months later by Harriet Washington in a New York Times column, namely that:

“The evidence against the Bulgarian medical team, like H.I.V.-contaminated vials discovered in their apartments, has seemed to Westerners preposterous. But to dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa.

“Africa has harbored a number of high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research.”

My conversations in Libya did not convince me that the Bulgarian health workers were guilty, but they did give me a new insight into the Libyan viewpoint.  On the African continent, it was easy for even highly rational people to believe that foreign health workers might have been paid to infect children, either for experimental purposes or to “destabilize” the public health system.  Secondly, it became clear that this was not a case of “the dictator Gaddafi” persecuting innocents. The arrest, alleged torture and conviction of the Bulgarian nurses were carried out by authorities in Benghazi.  Indeed, last March 11, the day after France recognized the rebel National Transitional Council as the “sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people”, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov complained to a European summit in Brussels that key members of that council in Benghazi “are the people who tortured the Bulgarian medics for eight years and that this cost us nearly $60 million” in reparations to the infected children and their families.

In January 2007, I was also assured by people in Tripoli that the death sentence against the nurses would never be carried out.  This was true.  In August of that same year, the medical workers were freed by the Gaddafi family and allowed to go home to Bulgaria after a much publicized trip to Libya by President Sarkozy’s wife at the time, Cecilia.  This liberation was presented as a final reconciliation between Gaddafi’s Libya and Europe.

I abstained from writing about this for years, because I feel I do not know enough about Libya.  But now I see others, who know even less, loudly advocating NATO support to rebels in a civil war whose real motives and consequences are obscure.

My first conclusion is to point out that just because a country is not a Western-style democracy does not mean that everything that happens there is “dictated” by a “dictator”.  The term “dictator” serves to comfort the laziness of media and politicians who do not care to bother to investigate the complexities of an unfamiliar society.

My second and final conclusion is that we in the West have neither the right nor the ability to “fix” those unfamiliar societies such as Libya which we dismiss as “dictatorships”.  As the financial crisis threatens to bring living standards in much of the West below what they were in Gaddafi’s Libya before NATO intervened there, our Western “democracy” is in danger of being gradually reduced to a mere ideological excuse to attack, ravage and pillage other people’s countries.


Diana Johnstone is author of Fools’ Crusade.  She can be reached at



Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at