Monday, 14 September 2009

The release of Megrahi

[The current issue of The Journal (a 32-page, tabloid format newspaper published on a fortnightly basis and distributed to all five of Edinburgh's higher education institutions, reaching a total readership of approximately 60,000 students) carries an article by me on three of the issues that have arisen in the context of the release of Abdelbaset Megrahi. It reads as follows:]

Government undertakings and understandings

1. There can be absolutely no doubt that an undertaking was given by the UK government that anyone convicted in the Lockerbie case would serve his sentence in Britain. In paragraph 4 of their joint letter of 24 August 1998 to the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Acting Permanent Representatives of the United Kingdom and the United States said: "If found guilty, the two accused will serve their sentence in the United Kingdom." This letter is referred to in, and formed the basis of, UN Security Council Resolution 1192 (1998)which provided the international warrant for the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist.

It is disingenuous in the extreme for Jack Straw to claim that the debate over a deal between the UK and Libyan Governments over Abdelbaset Megrahi is absurd because he was in fact repatriated, not under the prisoner transfer agreement, but through compassionate release.

In the words of the Daily Telegraph's Scottish Editor Alan Cochrane: "If there are questions to be answered about why the British government thinks that terrorist bombers are fit subjects to be included in trade deals and their release bartered away for commercial ends, then that's for them to explain. It is no business of the Nats in Edinburgh, which to be fair to them is what they've been saying to London for nigh on two years.”

2. The memorandum of understanding regarding prisoner transfer that Tony Blair entered into in the course of the "deal in the desert" in May 2007, and which paved the way for the formal prisoner transfer agreement, was intended by both sides to lead to the rapid return of Mr Megrahi to his homeland. This was the clear understanding of Libyan officials involved in the negotiations and to whom I have spoken.

It was only after the memorandum of understanding was concluded that [it belatedly sunk in] that the decision on repatriation of this particular prisoner was a matter not for Westminster and Whitehall but for the devolved Scottish Government in Edinburgh, and that government had just come into the hands of the Scottish National Party and so could no longer be expected supinely to follow the UK Labour Government's wishes. That was when the understanding between the UK Government and the Libyan Government started to unravel, to the considerable annoyance and distress of the Libyans, who had been led to believe that repatriation under the PTA was only months away.

Justice Secretary's visit to Megrahi

The visit by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice to Abdelbaset Megrahi became inevitable as soon as Mr MacAskill decided, presumably after taking advice from his officials, to take representations in person (and not just in writing) from interested persons, such as relatives of those killed on Pan Am 103. He could not, while complying with the requirement of procedural fairness incumbent upon him, offer the opportunity to make representations in person to categories of interested persons while denying that opportunity to the prisoner himself.

Are the politicians who have rushed to criticise Kenny MacAskill for meeting Abdelbaset Megrahi prepared to criticise him for meeting - in person in some cases, by video link in others - Lockerbie relatives? If not, their criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the legal position and reflects on them, not on Mr MacAskill.

The medical evidence

We should be careful not to give credit to those who argue that there are shortcomings in the medical advice which led to Mr Megrahi's release based on his imminent death because it came not from a cancer specialist but from a General Practitioner, for there is a straightforward answer. Specialist oncologists simply are not prepared to tell a patient, or anyone else who may want to know, how long that person has to live. They regard their function as being to provide, or advise on, the best care and treatment for the patient for however long or short a period he may have left. This means that if a patient, or anyone else with a need to know, insists on being provided with a time scale, this must be provided, not by the cancer specialists, but by the ordinary general practitioner attending the patient who must do his best, with his overall knowledge of the patient and the progress of the disease, to translate the specialists’ views into weeks or months.

That is precisely what has happened in Abdelbaset Megrahi’s case. The newspapers and politicians who have sought to read something sinister and underhand into the medical aspects of Kenny MacAskill’s decision should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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