It is 10pm at night, but the city skyline is sparkling ahead of the 40th anniversary celebrations next Tuesday of his father’s ascent to power.
Loading article content
Before we reach his house in the countryside, there are countless small road blocks, but they make for a stark contrast to the warm welcome at his red stone villa.
Personable, relaxed, smiling, Mr al Gaddafi welcomes us with open arms. We sit and drink hot tea from tiny translucent glasses embossed with gold leaves and semi-precious stones, beneath high-arched ceilings covered in beautiful mosaic tiling.
It is difficult to know what to expect of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son, but this is not it.
The second eldest son of the Libyan leader, Mr al Gaddafi has become the public face of the country in the West. Tipped to succeed his father, he has consistently denied this ambition and said that Libya is not his country to “inherit”.
For the past eight years, he has worked quietly to get Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, home to Tripoli. Last week, he was understandably delighted with the news that Megrahi was to be released on compassionate grounds, but he is now concerned at the “misunderstandings” that have followed, with victims’ relatives and politicians across the globe lining up to attack Kenny MacAskill for the decision, and Gordon Brown for not stating his case.
But Mr al Gaddafi believes there are two separate issues: realpolitik, and simple compassion. “For the past seven to eight years we have been trying very hard to transfer Mr Megrahi to Libya to serve his sentence here and we have tried many times in the past to sign the prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) without mentioning Mr Megrahi, but it was obvious we were targeting him,” he says.
“The prisoner transfer agreement was on the table all the time. It was part of the bargaining deal with the UK. When [Tony] Blair came here we signed the agreement. It is not a secret.
“We wanted to show Mr Megrahi and the Libyan people that we had been working very hard to find an exit for this innocent man. But this whole process of the PTA has nothing to do with this latest development because, officially, the Scottish authorities said they rejected the request for Mr Megrahi to return on prisoner transfer.
“We submitted two requests; one on compassionate grounds because he is sick and the other was under the PTA agreement. At the end, the Scottish (Justice) Secretary said ‘we reject the first one but accept the second’. This decision was not based on commerce or trade or industry and is entirely separate.”
Mr al Gaddafi commented briefly on Libyan television on the flight to bring Megrahi home two weeks ago. His remarks served to fan the international firestorm already raging, but he now says they were misunderstood.
“The fight to get the agreement lasted a long time and was very political, but I want to be very clear to your readers that we didn’t mention Mr Megrahi,” he says. “At all times we talked about the PTA. It was obvious that we were talking about him. We all knew that was what we were talking about.
“People should not get angry because we were talking about commerce or oil. We signed an oil deal at the same time. The commerce and politics and deals were all with the PTA. This was one animal and the other was the compassionate release. They are two completely different animals.
The Scottish authorities rejected the PTA. It did not work at all, therefore it was meaningless. He was released for completely different reasons.
“The decision by Scotland was not influenced by any of these things. I think the Scottish Justice Secretary is a great man. He made the right decision. So many of us, including so many relatives of the victims, believe that Mr Megrahi is innocent. One day, history will prove this. Mr Megrahi is very confident that if the appeal had gone ahead then he would have been freed.”
Both Mr Brown and Mr MacAskill had askedthe Libyans to avoid a triumphant, high-profile welcome for Megrahi. Local TV recorded scenes of hundreds of Libyans waving flags, including Saltires, and wearing T-shirts bearing Megrahi’s face, exacerbating feelings of anger in the UK and across the Atlantic.
Mr al Gaddafi explains that the Libyans had agreed not to mention the release until Megrahi was back on home soil, and says they purposefully chose not to give him an official welcome. Instead, he says the fact the Scottish authorities allowed the media to cover his departure from Glasgow meant that any Libyan watching TV would have known that he would be arriving in four hours.
“There was no official reception, no ministers, no officials to greet him,” he explains. “There were just ordinary people there and his family. They knew he was coming because of the coverage in Glasgow. Everyone knew from Sky and the BBC that he was going to land in Tripoli in four hours.
“We got stuck for two hours in the plane because we had not expected this and there were no police or security to organise the crowd at the airport. We had to wait for them to organise the crowd.
“All the journalists complained that the Libyan authorities did not allow access to the airport, but this was a pre-condition. But in Glasgow there were journalists everywhere and helicopters. The Scottish authorities had requested that he be allowed to walk up on his own to the plane in Glasgow.
“There was no official celebration, no guards of honour, no fireworks and no parade. We could have arranged a much better reception. On the same day in Tripoli, tens of thousands of young people were celebrating the day of the youth in Green Square in Tripoli. We could have taken them. This is evidence in our favour that we did not prepare to receive him as a hero. We respected the request of the Scottish and British governments to keep it low-key.
“At the same time this is not a normal event in our history. It was a big historic event and we did our best, and I’m sorry but if you don’t believe that, I’m sorry. I would say to Mr Gordon Brown that we could have organised a huge parade and huge reception with fireworks but we did not. We took him straight to his house.”
Mr al Gaddafi also says Megrahi will play no part in next week’s celebrations of the anniversary of his father coming to power, saying: “Mr Megrahi will be in the hospital on September 1 and will not be playing a role in September 1.”
He is candid about the fact that inter-country political discussions are generally about commerce and that, when it comes to Libya, that means oil.
“There is nothing wrong with talking about oil and commerce,” he says, expressing the strength of his conviction with emphatic arm gestures while offering us dates and delicate Arabic pastries.
“You have your bargaining and your oil and commerce and you have talks and do deals. We do it with the UK, with Russia, with America, with China, with everyone. There is nothing wrong with that. This is politics. But the release and bringing Mr Megrahi back home was a different story.”
When we ask about the much-discussed connections between Peter Mandelson and Mr al Gaddafi and their meeting in Corfu on holiday while staying with “mutual” friends, he presses a button on the coffee table in front of him and we fear we could be ejected. Instead, he offers us water and denies that there is any connection between the UK Business Secretary and the decision to release Megrahi.
“There is no link between Mr Mandelson and Mr Megrahi. There is no link between this and a legal case. He is the business minister. There is zero link.
“My father made a clear public statement saying that this decision will promote and enhance the relationship between Libya and the UK and Scotland and now we are in an excellent environment to do business and work together and put Lockerbie behind us and talk about the future. We want to talk about business and oil and health and more productive projects. This is history.”
He is understandably keen for Libya and its relations with the West to move on from the public hiatus of recent weeks. He is confident that the US threats to boycott Scottish goods will be as short-lived as their previous promises to refuse French wine.
“The Americans tried this with the French and said they would not drink French wine, but I think they carried on drinking it and will carry on drinking Scottish whisky, therefore I don’t think it is a serious threat.
“The US knew a long time ago that Mr Megrahi would probably be released and asked us to keep the reception low-key. For the past three or four weeks, it has become obvious that he might have been released so it was not a complete surprise for them.”
He says that many of the families of the victims of the tragedy have written to the Libyan Government to say they do not think Megrahi was guilty or that they at least have no objections to a dying man being released.
“Most of the families of the victims in Scotland have written to us to say they are pro the decision and more than 20% of the American families say they have no objection. Even some of the families are in favour but different parties -- politicians -- may be trying to use it to their own advantage.
“Everybody made the right decision,” he says. “If you think that 200 or 100 people at the airport is a mistake then fine, maybe it was a mistake, but it was not a big mistake and it was out of our control. If you think the release was a mistake, that is different. That was not a mistake. It was humane and it was right.
“I want to offer my deepest sympathies to all of the families who lost loved ones and the best condolences would be for a public inquiry. The truth will come out one day. The most important message is that I believe this man is innocent. Lockerbie is history. The next step is fruitful and productive business with Edinburgh, London.
“Libya is a promising, rich market and so let’s talk about the future. There is no reason for people to be angry. Why be so angry? This is an innocent man who is dying.
”© Herald and Times Group
Close Family are all important players in Libyan society
Colonel Gaddafi’s sons have emerged as important players in their father’s government and Saif al Islam, the second of the Libyan leader’s children -- seven sons and one daughter -- is the most influential of them.
Born in 1972, Saif, Gaddafi’s eldest son by his second wife, is highly educated, and said to be able to communicate in English, German and French. He has a degree in engineering science from Tripoli’s Al Fateh University, an MBA from Vienna’s IMADEC University and a PhD in philosophy from the London School of Economics.
Saif has become known as a diplomat and a moderniser, having discussed political reform.
He runs a non-governmental organisation, the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, which, according to its website, carries out “developmental and humanitarian activities in the social, economic, cultural and human rights fields”. Saif, who has described his family as “very close”, has
been tipped as a likely successor to his father, but he has played down such suggestions.
Last year he announced he was retiring from politics. He said that Libya was “not a farm to inherit”.
This apparently remains the position, despite his high-profile involvement in the return to Libya of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Saif’s business interests are said to include an architecture firm in Tripoli and he also paints.
His brother Moatessem, the fourth-born, is also a significant figure in Libyan affairs and is sometimes mentioned as a possible heir.
He fled to Egypt after being accused of subversion, but returned. He is national security adviser and commands his own army unit.
Col Gaddafi’s third son, Saadi, is a businessman and former professional footballer, and his eldest son, Muhammad, heads the Libyan Olympic committee.
Gaddafi’s fifth son, Hannibal, was arrested in Switzerland last year over allegations of assaulting two of his servants. Tripoli protested, taking measures that included halting oil shipments to Switzerland; the Swiss foreign ministry reported that Swiss firms had been forced to close their Libyan offices. Earlier this month, the Swiss government apologised.
Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, is a lawyer who was on the defence team of the executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In 1986, the Gaddafi residential compound in Tripoli was bombed by the US, and Gaddafi’s young adopted daughter Hanna was killed.
Revelations about transfer deal add to pressure on Gordon Brown
The comments by Saif al Islam al Gaddafi that the original prisoner transfer deal involving the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was linked to trade and oil will heap more pressure on Gordon Brown to deliver his opinion on Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi’s release.
Mr Brown was Tony Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer two years ago when the then Prime Minister signed the “deal in the desert” that could have led to Megrahi’s repatriation under a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA), so he could hardly have been unaware of what was said during the negotiations.
The challenge issued to the UK Government last night by the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson -- to clear up what happened in the meetings, which he says remain “shrouded in mystery” -- deserves an answer.
As he says, the Scottish Government pledged to release
all possible information on the consideration of Megrahi’s release as soon as possible, and, if the UK Government wants to end suspicions over its own dealings with Libya, Gordon Brown should adopt the same approach and put the details of these meetings into the public domain.
The Conservative Shadow Scotland Office Minister Ben Wallace has asked Mr Brown to prove the release was unconnected to any trade agreement.
He said that if it is the case that the Westminster government had no involvement in the decision to
release Megrahi then Gordon Brown and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson should have no objection to releasing details of their dealings with Libya.
Mr al Gaddafi says in his interview that although Megrahi’s release was never overtly mentioned in the talks on a PTA, it was clearly a core part of the subtext.
Lord Mandelson has met Colonel Gaddafi’s son twice in the past couple of months.
The Cabinet Office has also confirmed that Lord Jones, then trade minister, travelled to Libya last May to speak to business representatives; former health minister Dawn Primarolo had talks with the Libyan Prime Minister last November; and there were discussions between former Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell and his Libyan counterparts in February.
That would be usual in the normal run of interna-tional relations but the Megrahi factor makes this situation abnormal, and as, Mr Wallace says: “The government needs to prove that trade negotiations were kept completely separate from the release of the Lockerbie bomber.”
Mr Brown’s continuing silence fuels suspicions that both the UK and US governments were keen to see Megrahi repatriated so that both countries could benefit from improved relations and trade agreements worth billions of pounds.
That is sustained by Mr al Gaddafi’s comment on the talks that have taken place over the last two years: “People should not get angry because we were talking about commerce or oil. The commerce and politics and deals were all with the PTA.”
That is entirely different in tone to Mr MacAskill who, in his initial statement last week, stated that his decision to release Megrahi was on compassionate grounds and “without political or economic considerations”.
That appears to have come as a bit of a surprise to the Libyans and earned him praise from Mr al Gaddafi, who thinks the Scottish Justice Secretary is “a great man” who made the right decision.
Such words may be of some comfort to the embattled Justice Secretary, who has been on the receiving end of a huge amount of criticism.
Since the decision was made on compassionate grounds, Mr al Gaddafi has reason for arguing that any discussions involving trade agreements were irrelevant because they were associated with PTA.
The challenges by opposition parties that Megrahi’s release was linked to a trade deal have been dismissed by Lord Mandelson as “offensive” and the Scottish Government said last night UK ministers had to “answer for themselves”.
But until Mr Brown does that and says what he thinks of Mr MacAskill’s decision, the suspicion will remain that Megrahi’s release and the dropping of his appeal are in some way linked.
BRIAN CURRIE, Political Editor
US Politicians call for ban on Gaddafi visit to New Jersey
ANGER has erupted in New Jersey over a planned stay next month by Colonel Gaddafi, who is due in the US to address the United Nations General Assembly.
Thirty-eight victims of the Lockerbie bombing lived in New Jersey before their deaths. The state governor, Jon Corzine, along with New Jersey senator Robert Menendez and the state’s member of the House of Representatives John Adler, added their voices in protest against the plans for Colonel Gaddafi to stay in the northern New Jersey community of Englewood.
Mr Adler said he should be “barred” from New Jersey.
The Libyan government is renovating a sprawling estate in Englewood, and Colonel Gaddafi is expected to pitch a ceremonial Bedouin-style tent on the grounds, after a request to erect it in Manhattan’s Central Park was rejected.
“Let him land at the UN by helicopter, do his business and get out of the country,” said Mr Adler, who plans to introduce a resolution condemning Megrahi’s release at the US House of Representatives on September 8.
Colonel Gaddafi’s UN appearance will be his first US visit. Under its host nation agreement with the United Nations, the US is obliged to allow foreign leaders, other officials and diplomats into the country to visit or work at the UN with limited exceptions.
But the provisions allow US authorities to restrict their movement to a 25-mile radius around UN headquarters in New York. Englewood is about 12 miles north of Manhattan.
The Englewood estate is one of several possible sites being considered for Colonel Gaddafi and his entourage.
The Obama administration has said it will keep in mind the “raw sensitivities” of the families of Lockerbie bombing victims as it tries to find a place for him.
Saif al Islam al Gaddafi makes a point during our interview at his Tripoli home