Libya's much-hailed first female Foreign Minister, Najla Mangoush, has been suspended by the country's Presidential Council. The decision on 6 November concluded that the minister had been "acting unilaterally and without consultation" with the council as required by the political agreement of 9 November 2020 that divided authority between the Council of Ministers and the Presidential Council. The suspension decree also said that Mangoush is to be investigated by two experts who will submit their findings to the council within the next two weeks.
However, the real reason for the suspension and investigation is a comment in her interview with the BBC. The minister said that her government is "open" to the possibility of extraditing a Libyan citizen wanted by the United States in connection with the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. On the 32nd anniversary of the bombing on 21 December last year, the then US Attorney General William Barr accused a former Libyan intelligence officer, Abu Agila Mohammed Masud, of involvement in the atrocity. Despite what Mangoush told the BBC, though, it is unlikely that Masud will be extradited.
Two hundred and seventy people, mostly US citizens, were killed on that fateful night, including 11 people on the ground, when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. A Libyan intelligence officer, Abdel Baset Ali Al-Megrahi, was convicted of the atrocity and sentenced to life imprisonment in a 2001 trial. He was released in 2009 for health reasons — he was suffering from prostate cancer — and died in his Tripoli home in 2012.
Al-Megrahi protested his innocence to the end and his family launched a posthumous appeal to clear his name. The third appeal is now being considered by the UK Supreme Court in London after it was rejected by Scotland's Court of Appeal in January.
READ: What has Libya's uncelebrated ceasefire achieved?
His Glasgow-based lawyer, Aamer Anwar, was outraged by Mangoush's comments. In a statement shared with MEMO he wrote, "Shame on you [Najla Mangoush] for broadcasting to the world, the words 'positive outcomes' are coming." When asked about the possibility of extraditing Masud to the US the minster had used that phrase, implying that the issue is being discussed among ministers and a decision to collaborate with the US has already been made.
Anwar went on to question her motives by asking, "What reward are you expecting from the United States, a country that has bombed, humiliated and sanctioned your people?" He accused the minister of breaking Libyan law, which bans the extradition of Libyan citizens to be tried abroad.
Faced with a wave of public outrage, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation denied on 7 November what was attributed to the minister in the BBC interview. It insisted that Mangoush "never mentioned" Masud. It's true that she did not refer to him by name, but the context of the interview clearly refers to him. The BBC released a clip of the interview in which Mangoush answered a question about extraditing Masud to the US and she said: "I don't know but I think we, as a government, are very open in terms of collaboration in this matter."
Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh came out quickly in her support, and said that the Presidential Council does not have the authority to suspend the foreign minister. Citing the political agreement that paved the way for the current government and council to share power, Dbeibeh said that the latter "has limited power" which does not include appointing or suspending ministers.
A top Libyan Supreme Court judge, Ali Al-Zuraiqi, confirmed in a televised interview said it is "illegal to extradite a Libyan citizen" to be tried in another country. He added that such a matter is in any case "for the judiciary in Libya to decide."
Libyan commentators overwhelmingly rejected Mangoush's statement, accusing her of reopening the Lockerbie case which, many say, has long since been closed. Indeed, in 2008 the US and Libya signed what is known as a Claims Settlement Agreement that ended all claims in connection, not only with the Lockerbie bombing, but also many others that involve violence and acts of terror committed before 2006.
READ: The Libya Stabilisation Conference was all talk and little substance
Former Foreign Minister Mohamed Sayala was asked about his successor's comments. "The Lockerbie case was completely closed," he pointed out, "[and] its revival opens hell's door" to Libya, particularly, in terms of financial compensation for the victims' families. In the 2008 agreement with the US, Libya agreed to pay a total of $2.7 billion to victims' family in order to "buy the peace", as its then Prime Minister, Shukri Ghanem, described it.
Libya has never accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie tragedy and "mounting evidence" since the 2001 trial has pointed to Al-Megrahi's innocence. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed on board the doomed flight, is certain that Al-Megrahi is a "victim of a miscarriage of justice." Swire is one of the campaigners pushing for his conviction to be overturned.
Ferial El-Ayeb, a consultant to Al-Megrahi's defence team in Scotland, told MEMO that such comments by Foreign Minister Mangoush are "outrageous and insulting to us in the defence team." She added that Libya is in "a weak situation now" and the kind of comments heard from the minister "will increase US pressure on the country to hand over Masud."
A source in the foreign ministry, speaking anonymously, told MEMO yesterday that Mangoush was in her office despite the Presidential Council's decision. The source added that she is expected to take part in tomorrow's conference on Libya hosted by the French in Paris.
The only certainty, the source concluded, is that the "negative public backlash against [Mangoush] will act as a 'deterrent' to her and other officials to be careful when discussing sensitive issues."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.