Thursday, 11 October 2007

The procedural hearing

The hearing at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh this morning lasted just under one hour. The judges were the Lord Justice General (Lord Hamilton), Lord Kingarth and Lord Eassie. (For brief biographies, see Mr Megrahi was represented by a team headed by Maggie Scott QC and the Crown by a team headed by Ronnie Clancy QC. For technical reasons of no particular interest in the overall scheme of the Lockerbie case, the Advocate General for Scotland was also represented; as also was the Chief Constable of Dumfries and Galloway (because copies of the documents that Megrahi's lawyers are seeking to have disclosed to them are in that police force's possession).

The principal subject of debate was Megrahi's application to have disclosed a document relating to timers that is in the possession of the Crown and that was seen by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, and the non-disclosure of which to the defence was one of the Commission's reasons for holding that a miscarriage of justice might have occurred. The only major surprise in the hearing was the Crown's revelation that the foreign country from which the document in question emanated was not the United States of America. The general assumption amongst commentators (myself included) had been that the source of the document was the CIA or the FBI. Mr Clancy indicated that the Crown was seeking the consent of the foreign country in question for the release of the document to the appellant's legal team He asked for, and was granted, a six week period to lodge written answers to Megrahi's application for an order for the document to be disclosed. His hope was that within that period the foreign country would agree to its release and that the court would not therefore have to consider whether to make a formal ruling on the matter.

The other issue ventilated at the hearing was the timetable for Megrahi's legal team to lodge his Grounds of Appeal (as distinct from the "outline of proposed grounds of appeal" that had already been provided to the court). Ms Scott indicated that a vast amount of new material had become available to Megrahi's team from the SCCRC and also from the Maltese authorities and that this had to be considered and assessed before grounds of appeal could be finalised. The court ordered that the Grounds of Appeal be lodged before the end of the legal term on 21 December 2007, but on the understanding that additions and amendments might be required thereafter. A separate set of grounds of appeal on the issue of inadequate representation by Megrahi's original legal team was ordered to be lodged in advance, so that the lawyers criticised in them should have the opportunity of commenting on the allegations without further delay to the proceedings as a whole.

The appeal proceedings will be held in Edinburgh, but Ms Scott indicated concerns about arrangements for Mr Megrahi's repatriation to Libya in the event of his release. It is to be expected that satisfactory arrangements will be evolved, perhaps involving the United Nations (as happened in respect of Mr Fhima, the co-accused who was acquitted at the original trial).

The public benches of the courtroom were by no means full, though a number of Lockerbie relatives did attend, along with a substantial contingent of representatives of the media. The most common complaint from those attending was the difficulty in hearing what was being said. The acoustics were appalling and this was not helped by the tendency of the speaking participants (with the honourable exceptions of Ms Scott and Mr Clancy) to whisper or mumble.

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