Friday, August 28, 2009

Megrahi: Cock up and conspiracy

If it goes on like this, they'll have to put Kenny MacAskill in protective custody. If the threats on the internet are anything to go by, the Scottish Justice Secretary is in mortal peril for his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber. Open season has been declared, now the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, has accused MacAskill of “giving comfort to terrorists around the world”. When I saw yesterday's headlines about the Scottish government being brought down my fleeting thought that the US had decided that Scotland was now part of the axis of evil and in need of regime change.

Did the SNP miscalculate the reaction to the decision? Yes, frankly, they did. The Saltires in Tripoli were a shock, as was the volume of the international outcry. The Scottish government thought they were acting responsibly and within the law – which they were. Kenny MacAskill observed due process and his decision to release Al Megrahi, on the advice of the Parole Board and the prison governor, was reasonable even if itmight have been politically naive. Mr Mueller's claim that the action was “a mockery of the rule of law” is dangerous nonsense from the director of a police agency.

Was there an element of hubris? Well, the SNP clearly wanted to show Scotland and the world that they could handle a great international issue such as this in their own way and in their own time. That they could do without the embrace of either London or Washington. The easier route might have been to go along with Tony Blair's 'deal in the desert' in 2007 and allow Megrahi to spend the rest of his short life in a Libyan jail under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement arranged between London and Tripoli. This would have squared Col Gadaffi, ended the appeal process and allowed everyone involved to – in Whitehall parlance – 'draw stumps'. But the SNP isn't much into cricket.

Alex Salmond was incensed at the thought of the perpetrator of Scotland's worst terrorist atrocity being moved to Libya under a secret arrangement which had been signed and sealed behind the backs of the Scottish government and the Scottish law officers. And all to further the interest of BP and British Aerospace, for shame! He made an emergency statement in the Scottish Parliament two years ago and insisted that any decision on Megrahi's fate should be made in Scotland by Scots. Which is exactly what happened. But the downside was that it has allowed the UK government to wash its hands of the decision, despite having been up to its eyeballs in the machinations over Megrahi.

Was there a convict-for-contracts deal? There was never any explicit linkage between Megrahi's repatriation to Libya and the UK energy deals – there didn't need to be. It's not how these things are done. There were clearly 'understandings', as has been confirmed by the publication of recent correspondence between Gordon Brown and the Libyans. There was an assumption that Megrahi would somehow find his way back to Libyan soil. But the prime minister always stressed that the final decision would be taken by the Scottish government, not him.

Why didn't the Scottish government just let Megrahi rot in Greenock? MacAskill could simply have said that the enormity of the crime was such that the public interest, here and in America, would not have been served by allowing Megrahi to be released even on compassionate grounds. But Kenny MacAskill is a lawyer and bit of a stickler for due process. He was determined demonstrate good faith by conducting a consultation into the Megrahi affair, once it became clear that Megrahi had a terminal illness. The result of that consultation was clear: Megrahi should be released on medical grounds.

The climate of opinion over Lockerbie in Scotland is very different to that in America. Public debate here has been heavily influenced by highly articulate individuals such as Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in Pan Am 103, and by the indefatigable Tam Dalyell, both of whom believe Megrahi is innocent. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has said that there is enough evidence to suggest a miscarriage of justice. This doesn't mean Megrahi is innocent, and MacAskill hasn't disowned the verdict of the Lockerbie judges delivered in Camp Zeist in 2001. However, this intellectual climate must have contributed to MacAskill's decision that there were no grounds for denying Megrahi his rights under Scots law.

But why did Megrahi drop his appeal? The Scottish government insist that they did not make this a condition of his release and that they wanted the appeal to go ahead. Not everyone believes them. Conspiracy theorists believe there must have been a last minute stitch up between London and Edinburgh to prevent anyone learning the truth of what really did happen in 1988. Scotland doesn't want any further reputational damage to the Scottish legal system, while Westminster doesn't want any further light shone on its dealings with Middle Eastern nations like Iran and Syria. The foreign secreatary, David Miliband, has already placed a Public Interest Immunity Certificate on documents which might have been useful to Megrahi's defence.

My own view is that while Scotland and London had a common interest in drawing a line under the affair, there was no actual collusion. The simplest explanation might be that Megrahi himself didn't think the appeal would succeed and preferred to claim, on his home territory, that his release was confirmation of his innocence. And so the Lockerbie bomber was allowed to go home to a hero's welcome in Tripoli, and to the embrace of a triumphant Col Gadaffi. Gordon Brown has been able to dump responsibility for the repatriation of Megrahi onto the Scottish government, while UK companies benefit from billions in oil and other contracts. Well, for now.

But the Prime Minister's failure to comment upon Megrahi's repatriation is being ridiculed and the Conservatives are determined to implicate him as an accessory to the release of the Lockerbie bomber. To pretend that London had nothing to do with the Megrahi affair is an insult to the public's intelligence. There is both cock up and conspiracy here in equal measure and enough suspicion to keep journalists and lawyers in business for many years. The only certainty is that we will now never know the truth about Adelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi - may he rest in peace.

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