Wednesday, 31 August 2016

We had to play with words

[On this date in 2008 The Conspiracy Files: Lockerbie was broadcast on BBC Two. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was interviewed for the programme and said, amongst other things, the following:]
Q - Does Libya accept responsibility for the attack on Lockerbie?
A - Yes. We wrote a letter to the Security Council, saying that we are responsible for the acts of our employees, or people. But it doesn’t mean that we did it, in fact.
Q - So to be very clear on this, what you’re saying is that you accept responsibility, but you’re not admitting that you did it.
A - Of course.
Q - That’s… to many people will sound like a very cynical way to conduct your relationship with the outside world.
A - What can you do? Without writing that letter, you will not be able to get out of the sanction.
Q - So this statement was just word play. It wasn’t an admission of guilt.
A - No. I admit that we play with the words. And we had to. We had to. There was no other… solution.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The dead cannot cry out for justice

[What follows is excerpted from a long article published on this date in 2009 in the Malta Independent:]

The outrage expressed when the release of al-Megrahi was announced should not overshadow the memory of the trial that condemned and sentenced him.
Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi has never stopped reiterating his innocence and non-involvement in the blowing up of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988. (...)
As Ian Ferguson, author of the book The Hidden Scandal of Lockerbie, points out: “From the start, there was a determination to try to prevent the appeal being heard. It opened but never got off the ground, with stall after stall, as each month al-Megrahi weakened with the cancer that was killing him. There was rejoicing in the Crown Office in Edinburgh when he was released and the appeal abandoned.”
In this regard, it should be ensured that beyond any hindrance or censorship, all assistance and co-operation should be extended to al-Megrahi to enable him to deservedly affirm his innocence.
The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) had already granted him a second appeal. His legal team has been trying to see the secret papers, which they believe could help overturn his conviction. However, Foreign Secretary David Miliband has signed a public interest(?) immunity certificate, claiming that making the document public could cause “real harm” to national security and international relations. Of course, and stopping a convicted man from proving his innocence! Is this intended to thwart any redress or amends by al-Megrahi?
When only selected evidence is available and the defence does not even get to see parts of it, then the conviction becomes unsound. (...)
It was more than nauseating to note how some dazed or perhaps swayed media played upon the trumped-up assumption of “worldwide condemnation” at his release. Oh no, nothing of the sort! What we see here is just a cynical US condemnation and filthy politics. Playing politics in this matter is the politics of the gutter!
The UK and the US have their differences regarding law and justice that they may not agree on. The elaborate and shadowy politics behind the Lockerbie trial, including these same American families that are complaining about al-Megrahi’s release, also took blood money from Ghaddafi in a $2 billion dollar settlement.
Do you not remember that US military personnel, responsible for the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655, which killed all 290 passengers including 66 children, received a medal? What remuneration did the families of the victims receive? (...)
So, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton reiterated her opposition and condemnation to the release of the alleged Lockerbie bomber in a strongly-worded message to the Scottish government. She stressed that it was “absolutely wrong” to release Megrahi. What is she afraid of? Could it be the absolute truth?
Here I would dare to suggest two main reasons why the US administration is highlighting its opposition to this release.
Firstly, it is more than apparent to the world at large that America cannot accept a decision not in line with its policy and made by another country and is prepared to spout its wrath against it.
Secondly, according to Al-Megrahi’s lawyer, he ran the “very real risk” of dying before his appeal was heard, after a judge’s illness caused further delay in the case. It was evident that his release would eliminate this immediate danger and raise the possibilities for a final honest outcome of this affair.
Perhaps we in Europe ought to ask if the USA is indeed our ally any more. It is not customary for allies to boycott each other when they disagree.
On the other hand, high profile supporters, including Nelson Mandela and Michael Mansfield QC among others, strongly maintain that al-Megrahi is innocent.
What did the Americans want? Perhaps that he should be left to die in prison and to have the dead body handed to the US so that it could “execute” it?
Although the political furore over the release of al-Megrahi mainly centred around three countries, namely Britain, the US and Libya, there may well have been covert dealings, until now kept secret, which had been hatched in other countries. New and compelling evidence has now been released which could now well prove his innocence.
In a memo dated 24 September 1989, and reproduced in the appeal submission, the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) states: “The bombing of the Pan Am flight was conceived, authorised and financed by Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, Iran’s former Interior Minister. The execution of the operation was contracted to Ahmad (Jibril), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) leader, for a sum of $1 million.”
The prosecution case was that al-Megrahi took the bomb, wrapped in clothes bought from a shop in Malta, to the island’s Luqa airport, where it was checked in and then transferred on to Pan Am flight 103.
A key witness against al-Megrahi was Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who owned Mary’s House from where the police say the garments were bought.
Also, central to al-Megrahi’s conviction was the evidence of this Maltese shopkeeper, who claimed that al-Megrahi had bought clothes from him allegedly found in the suitcase bomb. Lawyers were due to claim that Gauci was paid over $2 million by US investigators for his evidence, which followed more than 20 police interviews, and that many of the often wildly conflicting statements taken on each occasion were withheld from the defence
But his police statements are inconsistent, and prosecutors failed to tell the defence that shortly before he attended an identity parade, Mr Gauci had seen a magazine article with a picture of al-Megrahi, and speculated that he might have been involved. The BBC programme has discovered that the Scottish police knew Mr Gauci had looked at al-Megrahi’s photograph just days before the line-up.
But, contrary to police rules of disclosure designed to ensure a fair trial, this crucial information was not passed on to the defence.
Besides that, if it were proven that he was rewarded, his testimony would cast doubt on its value.
The SCCRC has thoroughly checked out the claims and found he received “a phenomenal sum of money” from the US. It was reported that Gauci is understood to be planning to use his newfound wealth to fund a move to Australia with his brother, Paul, who was also on the witness list but was not called to give evidence.
Professor Emeritus Robert Black of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, “architect” of the Scottish court on Dutch soil (and himself from Lockerbie) said of the original conviction: “I thought this was a very, very weak circumstantial case. I am absolutely astounded, astonished. I was extremely reluctant to believe that any Scottish judge would convict anyone, even a Libyan, on the basis of such evidence.”
He said in 2005 that al-Megrahi’s conviction was “the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for 100 years.” “Every lawyer who has ... read the judgment says ‘this is nonsense’. It is nonsense. It really distresses me; I won’t let it go.”
It is no wonder that some people were hoping that al-Megrahi would die before certain witnesses were called. The release on compassionate grounds is a blessing for them, as much as it was for him.
The key lesson is that the human rights of all parties need to be at the centre of the legal process and decision making if the public interest is to be served, and if justice is to be done and seen to be done.
The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Megrahi to Senussi: I am an innocent man

[What follows is a paragraph from the Wikipedia article Abdelbaset al-Megrahi:]

On 29 August 2011, a letter written by Megrahi was discovered by The Wall Street Journal at intelligence headquarters in Tripoli, Libya. In what was a private letter to Libya's intelligence chief not previously available to the public, Megrahi wrote "I am an innocent man," a letter apparently composed while he was serving a life sentence in Scotland, and written in blue ink on ordinary paper. The letter was found in a steel four-drawer filing cabinet that had been forced open by rebels who entered the office of intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

[The relevant article in The Wall Street Journal contains the following:]

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi maintained his innocence in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 throughout his trial and appeals—and did so in a private letter to Libya's intelligence chief, discovered on Monday in intelligence headquarters in Tripoli.

"I am an innocent man," Mr Megrahi wrote to Abdullah al-Senussi, a powerful official who was regarded as one of Col Moammar Gadhafi's closest aides, in a letter found by The Wall Street Journal. The letter, in blue ink on a piece of ordinary binder paper, was apparently written while Mr Megrahi was serving a life sentence in the UK. (...)

The letter to Mr Senussi was found in a steel, four-drawer filing cabinet in the intelligence chief's office in Tripoli. The cabinet had been forced open, apparently by rebels who shot holes in the lock. The office lay in shambles, but many of Mr Senussi's personal papers appeared untouched. There was no way to immediately confirm the authenticity of the letter. (...)

Mr Megrahi was sentenced by a Scottish court to life imprisonment in 2001. In the letter to Mr Senussi, Mr Megrahi mentions that he had been jailed for seven years, suggesting it was written sometime in early 2008 or late 2007, in the run up to the second appeal of his conviction.
It is unclear why he would have had reason to profess his innocence to Mr Senussi, who was in a position to already know details about the bombing. (...)
Mr Megrahi insisted he was innocent throughout his original trial and subsequent appeals. Even after his conviction, mystery and unanswered questions about who else may have been involved have surrounded the case.
In the letter, addressed to "My dear brother Abdullah," Mr Megrahi blamed his conviction on "fraudulent information that was relayed to investigators by Libyan collaborators."
He blamed "the immoral British and American investigators" who he writes "knew there was foul play and irregularities in the investigation of the 1980s."
He described in detail his latest legal maneuvering, focusing on the testimony by a Maltese clothes merchant that was critical to his conviction. The Maltese clothes merchant in question testified that Mr Megrahi had purchased clothes from him that were later found in the suitcase that contained the bomb that brought down Flight 103.
"You my brother know very well that they were making false claims against me and that I didn't buy any clothes at all from any store owner in Malta," Mr Megrahi wrote to Mr Senussi.
Mr Megrahi also had a message for "our big brother," a likely reference to Col Gadhafi, "that our legal affairs are excellent and we now stand on very solid ground."
"Send my regards to our big brother and his family and by the will of God we will meet soon and we will be victorious," he wrote. "I only hope that the financial support will continue in the coming period," he added.
Mr Megrahi eventually dropped his appeal as a condition of his application for extradition to Libya.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

MacAskill ignores Megrahi evidence


[This is the headline over a letter from John Ashton that appears in today’s Scottish edition of The Sunday Times (but not, as far as I can see, on the newspaper’s website). It reads as follows:]

The first serialised extract of Kenny MacAskill’s book, The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice, contained factual errors (“Who was really behind the Lockerbie bombing”, News Review, May 15). I shall confine myself to two.

First, MacAskill claims Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was “unable to give any explanation” for his presence in Malta -- where the Lockerbie bomb supposedly began its journey -- on the night before and morning of the bombing. He adds: “Even in his own biography professing his innocence he simply says he can’t recall why he went.” In fact, in his biography, which I wrote, Megrahi gave a clear explanation of the visit. Second, MacAskill states crown witness Edwin Bollier claimed to have seen Megrahi at explosive tests conducted in Libya two years before Lockerbie. In fact, Bollier made no such claim, either in his numerous police interviews or in his trial testimony.

MacAskill insists Megrahi was guilty of the bombing, yet ignores the substantial body of evidence that suggests not only that the prosecution case was deeply flawed, but also that Megrahi was not involved.

[John Ashton has this afternoon provided on his Megrahi: You are my Jury website an account of his protracted dealings with The Sunday Times that eventually led to the publication today of the above letter. What follows is the gist:]

The Scottish Sunday Times has today published a letter by me about some of the significant errors in its serialised extract of Kenny MacAskill’s book The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice published on 15 May. This comes after a three-month wrangle, which began on 17 May when I wrote to the paper asking that they correct the errors (my email can be read here). It took almost two months for the paper to respond. The letter, which was from from the paper’s legal department, contained annotations by Mr MacAskill of my complaint and a flat refusal to print corrections (the letter can be read here).

I wrote back on 3 August pointing out errors in Mr MacAskill’s annotations and again asking that the paper publish corrections of the significant errors in line with section 1 of the IPSO editors’ code of practice (the letter can be read here). The paper again refused to print corrections, but offered to publish a letter from me. After some negotiation, it today published the following letter under the headline MacAskill ignores Megrahi evidence: [RB: see above].

You can read a more detailed critique of the book extract here.

‘Lockerbie is history. Now it's time to talk business’

[This is part of the headline over a report published in The Herald on this date in 2009. It reads as follows:]

Speaking exclusively to The Herald at his home near Tripoli, Saif al Islam al Gaddafi disclosed the original prisoner transfer deal with the UK government was directly linked to talks on trade and oil.
However, he denied this had anything to do with the eventual release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi and said the mercy shown by the Scottish Government had transformed the traditional Arabic view of Britain as “crusaders” against Islam.
Mr al Gaddafi praised Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, who last week freed Megrahi on compassionate grounds, as “a great man”, and said his decision had opened the way for future business.
In his first full interview since the international storm surrounding the release, Mr al Gaddafi apologised for any perception that the Libyan government had not done its best to contain the jubilant scenes that accompanied Megrahi’s arrival in Libya, but said they could have been far more extensive and were emphatically not a “hero’s welcome”.
He also revealed that Megrahi, who was convicted of the murder of 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, will not be taking part in the 40th anniversary celebrations of Colonel Gaddafi coming to power next week.
In what he said was his most important message, Mr al Gaddafi said: “Lockerbie is history. The next step is fruitful and productive business with Edinburgh and 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.”
His remarks are likely to increase the pressure on Gordon Brown to explain both the UK Government’s role in the negotiations and his personal views on Megrahi’s release.
Mr al Gaddafi said that the infamous “deal in the desert”, which saw an agreement signed between Tony Blair and Libya allowing prisoner transfers, specifically targeted Megrahi -- although his name was never mentioned.
He said: “For the last 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 PTA (prisoner transfer agreement) without mentioning Mr Megrahi, but it was obvious we were targeting Mr Megrahi and the PTA 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. But I want to be very clear to your readers that we didn’t mention Mr Megrahi. 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.”
Mr al Gaddafi, who is convinced of Megrahi’s innocence, has led the negotiations for the Libyan Government with the UK and Scotland and was waiting to greet Megrahi on the Afriqiyah Airbus at Glasgow airport that flew him home.
On the flight to Tripoli, Mr al Gaddafi spoke briefly on camera and was later criticised for suggesting that, in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with the UK, Megrahi’s transfer was on the “negotiating table”. However, Mr al Gaddafi told The Herald there had been no quid pro quo and that his comments had been misunderstood partly because people do not understand the difference between the PTA and compassionate release.
“This [the PTA] was one animal and the other was the compassionate release,” he said. “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.”
Ultimately, however, he said the work to secure prisoner transfer of Megrahi failed as it was rejected by Mr MacAskill. Instead, the minister chose to release Megrahi from Greenock prison early on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill and medical reports suggested he had less than three months to live.
Megrahi, 57, was serving a 27-year sentence at HMP Greenock for the bombing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988. He has consistently pleaded his innocence and his second appeal began in April, but his diagnosis with terminal prostate cancer meant he was unlikely to live to see its conclusion.
Mr al Gaddafi said: “It was a shock and surprise for Libyan society that he was freed on compassionate grounds and it showed the Libyans that the British and Scottish are civilised people because the perception here is that they are crusaders and they hate us and Islam and hate Arabs and they are not tolerant at all of us. But this act has touched the minds of many people and shown that they are merciful and more civilised than people had thought.
“That is why, for the first time in our history, that Libyan citizens have been out in the streets waving a different flag -- the Scottish flag. This is a unique event for us. This act changed the minds of many people.”
Mr Brown this week spoke of his “revulsion” at what the media described as a “hero’s welcome” when Megrahi was met by his family and hundreds of Libyans waving flags, including Saltires.
Local news reports said there were thousands of people present but Mr al Gaddafi said the Libyans had not organised an official welcome party for Megrahi and that there were only a couple of hundred of his friends and family. He also expressed regret at the response from the US and UK to Megrahi’s release and how he was met when he arrived in Tripoli.
Mr al Gaddafi said: “There was no official celebration, no guards of honour, no fireworks and no parade. We could have arranged a much better reception.
“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 last three or four weeks it has become obvious that he might have been released, so it was not a complete surprise for them.
“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.”

Saturday, 27 August 2016

UN Security Council welcomes Lockerbie trial plan

[On this date in 1998 the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution welcoming the proposal made by the United Kingdom and the United States for a trial before a Scottish court in the Netherlands of the Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing, and directing all UN member states to cooperate with it. A press release issued by the Security Council reads as follows:]

The Security Council tonight welcomed a joint United Kingdom-United States initiative for the trial of the two suspects before a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands, as well as the willingness of the Netherlands Government to cooperate in implementing this initiative. It called on the Governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to take the necessary steps to implement the proposal, including the conclusion of arrangements to enable the court to exercise jurisdiction in the terms of the agreement between the two Governments.
The Council also demanded again that the Libyan Government comply without delay with its resolutions relating to the terrorist bombings of a United States airliner, Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, and a French airliner, Union de transports aeriens (UTA) flight 772, the following year.
By the terms of its resolution (1192 [1998]), adopted unanimously, the Council decided that the Libyan Government should ensure the appearance of the two accused in the Netherlands for trial, and also ensure that any evidence or witnesses in Libya were promptly made available to the court upon request. It decided further that the suspects should be detained by the Dutch Government on arrival in the Netherlands and asked the Secretary-General to assist the Libyan Government with the physical arrangements for their transfer from Libya directly to the Netherlands.
The Council reaffirmed that the wide range of aerial, arms and diplomatic sanctions it imposed against Libya by its resolutions 748 (1992) and 883 (1993) remained in effect and binding on all Member States. It decided, however, that they would be suspended immediately once the Secretary- General reported that the two accused had arrived at the Netherlands for trial, or had appeared before an appropriate court in the United Kingdom or the United States, and that the Libyan Government had satisfied French judicial authorities investigating the 1989 bombing of UTA flight 772 over Niger, in which 171 people died. A total of 270 people were killed in the air and on the ground when a bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988.
The Council expressed its intention to consider additional measures if the two accused did not arrive or appear for trial promptly in the Netherlands. It invited the Secretary-General to nominate international observers to attend the trial.
(By its resolution 731 [1992], the Council demanded immediate compliance by Libya to the requests made to it by France, the United Kingdom and the United States to cooperate fully in establishing responsibility for the terrorist acts against the two airliners. Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Council by resolutions 748 [1992] and 883 [1992] repeated those demands. Resolution 883 [1993] also required Libya to ensure that the two accused in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 appeared for trial in the appropriate United Kingdom or United States court.)
Statements were made by the representatives of the United States, Portugal, France, Brazil, Russian Federation, Japan, Sweden, Gambia, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Gabon, China, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. A representative of Libya also spoke.
The meeting, which was convened at 9:44 pm, adjourned at 11:10 pm.

Friday, 26 August 2016

“Calling Gaddafi’s bluff”

[What follows is the text of an article published on this date in 1998 in The New York Times:]

With prominent international allies pressing Libya to accept an offer to allow two Libyans to go on trial in the Netherlands for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet, the Libyan Government said today that it would announce on Wednesday whether it would agree to the American and British proposal.
Both the Arab League and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, a leading international defender of the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, suggested that Libya would accept the plan. Under the proposal, the two Libyans, identified by American officials as intelligence agents, would be extradicted to The Hague and tried by three Scottish judges under Scottish law.
''The American-British proposal is compatible with the previous Arab suggestions, which Libya has accepted,'' Secretary General Esmat Abdel Meguid of the Arab League said after a meeting in Cairo with the British Ambassador to Egypt, Sir David Blatherwick. ''We have been seeking this solution.''
Mr. Mandela said he was confident that the plan ''should lead to the resolution of this matter.''
But Mr Qaddafi gave no indication of what his decision would be, and senior Clinton Administration officials would not hazard a guess about the thinking of the notoriously unpredictable Libyan leader. Still, the American officials said they were pleased with the statements from the Arab League and Mr Mandela.
The Libyan Government news agency, Jana, reported today that Libya's Foreign and Justice Ministries were closely studying the proposal and that a decision whether to accept it was expected on Wednesday.
A Libyan lawyer for the two suspects was quoted today as saying that his clients would voluntarily surrender to a special court in the Netherlands ''if the conditions for a fair trial are provided to protect their rights pending, during and after the trial.''
An agreement by Libya to allow the suspects to be tried in The Hague would be a milestone in the decade-old search for justice by the families of the 270 people killed in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
The United States and Britain, which had once demanded that the Libyans be tried in the American or British court systems, announced on Monday that they would agree to holding the suspects' trial in the Netherlands instead.
The proposal effectively called Mr Qaddafi's bluff, since his Government had suggested just such a plan. Libya had insisted that the suspects, identified by the Justice Department as Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, could not receive a fair trial in the United States or Britain.
The United States and Britain have vowed to seek to extend sanctions on Libya to include an oil embargo, if Libya turns down the deal. If Mr Qaddafi accepts, however, the existing sanctions on Libya would be eased. The United States and Britain introduced a resolution in the United Nations today that would provide for the suspension of the sanctions if the two suspects are handed over.
Although the end of the sanctions would be welcomed by Libya, a trial of the two men risks exposure of evidence that could tie senior officials in the Libyan Government -- possibly including Mr Qaddafi himself -- to the decision to bomb the Pan Am jumbo jet.
''If he accepts, we'll be delighted, and we'll hold this trial just as soon as we can,'' said a senior Clinton Administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ''But I still find it hard to believe that he'll allow this trial ever to take place. You may see Qaddafi accept this offer initially and then try to quibble over the details. I hope I'm wrong.''
American investigators have suggested that the Pan Am jet was destroyed in retaliation for the American bombing of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in 1986.
President Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli in response to evidence linking Libyan intelligence to a terrorist attack on a Berlin disco in April 1986 in which an American soldier was killed.
In announcing an indictment of the two Libyans in 1991 for the Pan Am bombing, Justice Department officials said that they had tracked a part of the bomb's timing device to a Swiss company that had sold it to a senior Libyan intelligence officer.
The indictment said that Mr Fhimah held a cover job as a station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta.
He is alleged to have placed the bomb in a suitcase there that was routed to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to the Pan Am jet. Mr Megrahi, the indictment said, purchased clothing and an umbrella in a store in Malta that were put into the luggage to hide the bomb.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Official disquiet was kept suppressed

[What follows is excerpted from a comment by Professor George JoffĂ© of the University of Cambridge and King’s College, London, that was published on the Jurist website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Law School on this date in 2009:]

Lockerbie bomber's release an effort to ease political tensions and avoid damaging appeal

Despite all the fulmination, protest and anger, the return of Abdelbasset al-Maghrahi to Libya draws a definite line under what has proved to be a very worrisome case — at least for the Scottish justice system. Mr al-Maghrahi was convicted in a special Scottish court, organised at Camp Zeist — an abandoned NATO base — in Holland, of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. The case had been problematic from the start. The Libyan authorities had first refused to hand over the two accused — Mr al-Maghrahi and Mr al-Khalifah al-Fahima — despite United Nations sanctions and then only agreed because the court that was to try them was constituted outside direct British or American control. Then there had been problems over the evidence (...). And the verdict itself had raised almost as many questions as it had answered, with the bench admitting that some of the evidence barely passed tests of credibility.

In short, Mr al-Maghrahi had been convicted only on the balance of probabilities, not because of overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Doubts about the rightness of his conviction surfaced almost immediately afterwards. They were raised covertly in Scottish legal circles, despite the rejection by the Scottish law-lords of Mr al-Maghrahi's appeal. They were raised overtly by the Libyan leader, Colonel Qadhafi, who promised to arrange Mr al-Maghrahi's release as an innocent victim. They were common knowledge within the corridors of power in Whitehall and in Edinburgh, even if official disquiet was kept suppressed. Then, as time went on, particularly after Mr al-Maghrahi became terminally ill, they became part of the day-to-day diplomatic exchanges between Britain and Libya. The Libyan authorities made it clear that they would not forgive Mr al-Maghahi's death in Scottish custody and that British-Libyan relations would suffer severely if it occurred.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, when pushed, the Scottish authorities, no doubt with considerable resentment at the position in which they had been put by Whitehall, decided to take the one legally impeccable exit available to them, compassionate release. Since Scotland acquired its own autonomous government a decade ago, there have been thirty applications for compassionate release, twenty-three of which have been granted. In Mr al-Maghrahi's case, no doubt, the issue was eased by his willingness to abandon his appeal, instigated by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission's finding that there were at least six grounds for legitimate concern about the original judgment.

In other words, the release on compassionate grounds tied up a whole series of loose ends. A potentially unsatisfactory conviction was ended without the embarrassment of a successful appeal and potential diplomatic and commercial tensions were dissipated without the British government being directly involved, the Scottish authorities, in effect, being forced to take over Whitehall's responsibilities. It would have been a solution worthy of Machiavelli himself, were it not for three further considerations. First was the undoubted anger of the families of the American victims which the Obama administration has adroitly diverted onto Scotland. Second was Libya's maladroit handling of Mr al-Maghrahi's return which will, no doubt, be amplified by the celebrations for the fortieth anniversary of the Libyan revolution. And third is the unfortunate fact that we shall never know what really happened at Lockerbie nor, indeed, who was really responsible.