Cold Case: How Libya’s Revolution Might Solve a 1984 Murder

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One April evening in 1984, an after-work drink took a surreal turn. On the way to a bar, we skirted a police cordon at the entrance to St James’s Square in central London; we had barely lifted our pints before armed officers clattered into our midst and informed us that the cordon had been extended. We were not to leave. The Libyan embassy was under siege and a figure had been seen at the back of the building, heading in our general direction.

Earlier that day, a diminutive policewoman called Yvonne Fletcher had been shot dead and 11 demonstrators injured by gunfire outside the embassy, or “Libyan People’s Bureau” as its incumbents called it. A supporter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, apparently incensed by a peaceful vigil protesting the regime’s execution of two students in Tripoli, had opened fire from an upstairs window. Police and special forces quickly surrounded the building, and despite the reports of a fleeing figure, almost certainly prevented the gunman and any accomplices from leaving. Yet on the basis—later disputed—that the men inside the embassy enjoyed diplomatic immunity, the British authorities gave no order to storm the building. The siege lasted 10 days (we were released from the neighboring bar rather sooner, after only a few hours) and ended when the Libyans were allowed to depart for their home country, taking the murder weapon and other evidence with them.

The police believed they knew who pulled the trigger—listening devices picked up an agitated discussion inside the building that seemed to implicate a man called Omar Ahmed Sodani—but U.K. detectives were never given access to him, even after Libya handed over the Lockerbie suspects for trial in 1999. Queenie Fletcher waited in vain for justice for her slain daughter and told the BBC she felt “let down” after the 2009 release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi.

It has taken a violent eruption of the same dissident spirit that brought the protestors to the Libyan embassy that day in 1984 to revive hopes of justice that had faded like memories. Yesterday rebel forces in Libya invited foreign media to meet a Gaddafi loyalist they had captured. It was Sodani, in latter years the head of Gaddafi’s militia in Benghazi and according to Kim Sengupta of The Independent captured 10 days ago hiding in a shed. Sodani denies the murder, claiming he was under arrest by British police at the time of Fletcher’s shooting. Despite the passage of years, such claims should be possible to test. Whether Sodani will be called to account under British law is far from certain. Sengupta reports that as Sodani was led away by his captors, he sounded fearful but professed “full confidence in the fairness of the revolution and the revolution’s judges.”