Libya PM takes risky bet on US goodwill from Lockerbie handover


Libya's Tripoli-based leadership is facing a public backlash for handing Washington a suspect in the deadly 1988 Lockerbie attack, but is betting that the resulting U.S. goodwill can strengthen its hand against rivals.

The attack on a Pan Am jet over Scotland killed 270 people, the deadliest-ever terror attack in Britain, which took place when Libya was under the rule of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Earlier this month, alleged former intelligence agent Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir al-Marimi appeared in a U.S. court on accusations he made the bomb used in the attack.

He could face life in prison if convicted of "destruction of an aircraft resulting in death" and two other related charges.

Masud's handover sparked a backlash against the government of Abdulhamid Dbeibah, which controls the west of the conflict-wracked country but is challenged by a rival authority and forces loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar in the east. 

Dbeibah has faced bitter criticism from political rivals, rights groups and relatives of Libyan detainees who fear being handed over themselves.

Khaled al-Montasser, a professor of international relations at Tripoli University, said Dbeibah "will probably not stop at extraditing one suspect -- others will inevitably follow". 

Dbeibah, after admitting that the handover had taken place, said he had acted "with full respect for Libyan sovereignty".

He also denied rumours he was planning to hand over Abdallah Senoussi, who was Kadhafi's intelligence chief at the time of the attack.

"Senoussi will not be handed to the United States, he's in his prison in Tripoli," Dbeibah told Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya.

Only one person has been convicted for the bombing, which killed all 259 people on the jumbo jet, including 190 Americans, and 11 people on the ground.

The Libyan state had considered the case closed since 2003, after Gadhafi's regime officially acknowledged its responsibility for the attack, paid $2.7 billion in compensation and handed over two Libyan suspects.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were charged with the bombing and tried by a Scottish court in the Netherlands.

Megrahi spent seven years in a Scottish prison after his conviction in 2001 while Fhimah was acquitted.

Megrahi died in Libya in 2012, always maintaining his innocence.

But while a 2008 deal put an end to financial claims for compensation, "Washington never closes criminal cases" concerning its citizens, Montasser said.

He said the Biden administration was reviving the Lockerbie affair to "put pressure on Libya's political leaders".

"No Libyan authority could have refused" to hand over Masud, he said.

Libyan analyst Abdallah al-Rayes suspected Dbeibah had done a "political deal" with Washington with an eye to gaining its support to face down eastern rivals. 

"Libyan leaders are hoping to repair their image" in the eyes of Washington and strengthen their position as possible elections approach in 2023, he said.

He added that Dbeibah's public justifications for the handover were "not convincing" and had put his administration on the back foot.

"It's seen as having done the bidding of a foreign country," he said.

Tripoli however needs international goodwill in order to get favours in return, according to analyst Jalel Harchaoui.

"These aren't clear and firm transactions, but the seduction campaign led by the Dbeibah family is certainly real," Harchaoui said.

"Dbeibah, whose popularity in Libya has been waning with time, has noticed that some foreign states are coming to terms with his continued existence from month to month."

The U.S. embassy in Tripoli tweeted last week that Masud's "transfer... to U.S. custody to stand trial on charges related to the bombing of Pan Am 103 was lawful and conducted in cooperation with Libyan authorities".

It insisted it was not re-opening the 2008 deal which had put an end to legal pursuit of financial compensation in U.S. courts.

However, the deal in "no way restricts our law enforcement cooperation or has any bearing on criminal charges against those responsible for the attack," the embassy said.

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