Monday, 17 August 2009

The Lockerbie legacy

The leak of Megrahi's likely release has put the Scottish justice secretary in a fix. So who does he fear more: Libya or the US?

There have been some significant developments affecting the fate of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of involvement in the Lockerbie atrocity, since I wrote in Comment is free on 13 August.

There have been strong representations against his release from many of the families of the victims, particularly the American victims; this was expected, but what was not expected was that Hillary Clinton would make a personal d̩marche to the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, which seems to have shaken him. Second, Megrahi has applied to the court to withdraw his appeal, which had just started. Third, MacAskill is Рnot for the first time Рexpected to announce his decision (which he still claims not to have taken yet) within two weeks, but the other main political parties in Scotland have called for a debate in the Scottish Assembly. And fourth, we now learn that Peter Mandelson and Qadhafi's son Saif al-Islam discussed the matter a couple of weeks ago, in Corfu naturally; as all conspiracy theorists know, these two deserve each other, each the power behind the throne after his own fashion. I omit the Corfu near-summit from what follows, if only because the ball is at present in the Scottish, rather than the British, court.

I am personally relieved that it has now emerged that Megrahi's application to withdraw his appeal was made on 12 August, the very same day that the BBC were tipped off that Megrahi would be released on humanitarian grounds. I wondered if I had gone too far when I said on the Today programme next morning, as I hinted on Comment is free, that there had probably been a deal; so it's always comforting when evidence supporting a hypothesis emerges after the hypothesis is formulated. I suppose the court will agree that his appeal should be called off, because the alternative would be embarrassing. They might, I suppose, decide that the appeal should proceed on public interest grounds, but I think that would be improbably highminded.

The London-Edinburgh dingdong will continue. Earlier, Alex Salmond wrongfooted Tony Blair, who seems not to have realised, when the British government was negotiating the Prisoner Transfer Agreement, that prisoners in Scotland were the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. Revenge is sweet; now it is Edinburgh that is accused of bungling.

And what are we to make of Hillary Clinton? Her call to MacAskill seems to have been prompted by the very strong feelings of the families of the American victims. But it is hard to see that American interests, as opposed to feelings, were at risk, or that she has much leverage with MacAskill. Indeed, if Megrahi dies in prison, the violent Libyan kneejerk kick aimed at Britain may well hit America, too.

So, here's the happy ending. Provided the withdrawal of the appeal is accepted, release by MacAskill of Megrahi on humanitarian grounds will suit everybody (except those who want the truth). The Libyans for obvious reasons; Hillary Clinton because she can tell her constituents in the US that she went the extra mile for justice American-style; and MacAskill because he can say that, with the greatest respect for Mrs Clinton and the US families' feelings etc, he had no alternative in view of the medical advice to doing the decent thing. Even London would have no cause to complain.

But when I tried this theory out on one of my nearest and dearest, the answer was simple: "MacAskill hasn't the balls."

[The above is the text of an article by Oliver Miles on the website of The Guardian. His earlier article in Comment is free can be read here.]

1 comment:


    Like Oliver Miles, I'm a former British diplomat and think we should look at the bigger picture here.

    While the Lockerbie appeal continues there is the possibility - some would say the likelihood - of Megrahi's conviction being overturned. Three permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, Britain and France - are desperate to ensure this doesn't happen by having the appeal dropped tomorrow in Edinburgh's High Court.

    That will mean Mr Megrahi remains 'guilty' of the Lockerbie bombing and Libya, having accepted 'responsibility for the actions of its officials' in relation to both Pan Am Flight 103 and UTA Flight 772 (six Libyans convicted 'in absentia'), is firmly in the dock at the United Nations.

    The Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September 2009, when he is expected to call for a 'United Nations Inquiry into the death of UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing' (see

    What's the betting that next month Gaddafi, an undisputed 'convicted terrorist', will be refused entry into the United States?

    Strange to say, it might actually suit Gaddafi to be able to blame the US for his non-appearance at the United Nations. And the Americans would be spared the embarrassment of having President Obama's opening address at the UN being immediately followed by a lengthy diatribe from Gaddafi.

    Also, think of the security nightmare that Gaddafi's arrival in New York would entail: where to pitch his bedouin tent (Central Park?); how to deal with the Amazonian guard and to ward off the inevitable assassination attempts?

    Despite Hillary Clinton's reported protestations, the Americans are perfectly ambivalent on the question of Mr Megrahi's release or whether he spends the rest of his life in a Scottish jail. All that Britain, France and the US (and maybe Libya) want is for Megrahi's appeal to be abandoned at the High Court of Justiciary on 18 August 2009!