Wednesday, 21 July 2010

"Compassionate release" of Lockerbie convict: investigation must be comprehensive and independent

In a statement issued today, Dr Hans Köchler, UN-nominated international observer at the Lockerbie Trial, expressed his support for the call by a group of United States Senators for an inquiry into the release by the Scottish government of the only person convicted in connection with the midair explosion of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie (Scotland) on 21 December 1988.

However, for an investigation to be meaningful, it must be independent of political interference and should deal with all aspects of Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's release, not only with the alleged role of British Petroleum (BP); the ongoing controversy over BP's responsibility for the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States must not unduly interfere with the search for the truth in an entirely different matter, Dr Köchler stated.

An investigation should also address the question why Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for Justice made the unprecedented step to visit the Lockerbie convict in Scotland's Greenock prison and what exactly he discussed with him in private.

It is to be recalled that Mr al-Megrahi withdrew his appeal on 12 August 2009, a few days after his meeting with the Justice Secretary (5 August), and, again a few days later (20 August), he was repatriated to Libya. It is also to be recalled that, under Scots law, "compassionate release" does not require the termination of trial or appeal proceedings. Only a release under the provisions of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the UK and Libya (that was initiated by then Prime Minister Tony Blair) would have required the termination of proceedings. The Scottish Justice Secretary deliberately chose not to make use of this option.

The only "visit" that was required in the process of handling Mr al-Megrahi's application for compassionate release would have been one by competent and independent medical experts, since it is essentially a medical assessment (concerning a convict's life expectancy) that determines compassionate release under Scots law.

It is further to be recalled that, on 28 June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) stated that it suspects a miscarriage of justice and referred Mr al-Megrahi's case back to the appeal court. After much delay, the hearings of the second appeal had finally begun in 2009, only to be abruptly terminated by Mr al-Megrahi's (legally unnecessary) withdrawal of his application.

A meaningful investigation should find out the real motives behind the decision of the Scottish Justice Secretary. In view of the unprecedented private meeting between a Secretary for Justice and a person convicted of mass murder (a conviction which, according to his own statements, Scotland's Justice Secretary does not question in any way), it is entirely appropriate to ask whether the decisive motive might have been the termination of proceedings so that the role of the Scottish, UK and US administrations in the handling of the Lockerbie case would never be fully scrutinized in a court of law. In view of the British Foreign Secretary's decision, in February 2008, to withhold supposedly secret evidence from the Defence, claiming "Public Interest Immunity" (PII), questions as to considerations of raison d'état (of the United Kingdom and, possibly, the United States) are not far-fetched.

The families of the victims deserve better; and the rule of law requires more. The full truth of the Lockerbie tragedy must be known; the possible role of BP in the release of the only person convicted is only one of many aspects that would have to be investigated, Dr Köchler concluded.

[A report on the BBC News website of an interview with Dr Koechler can be read here.]


  1. I have enormous respect for Dr Hans Kochler but I feel an inquiry into the release only piles too much of the focus on to Kenny McAskill.

    He mentions the appeal of course but we cannot afford to get all the issues mixed up. I would much prefer the experts, and Dr Kochler is very much a member of that group, to keep demanding one Inquiry and that should be into the whole investigation of the Lockerbie atrocity.

    I say this while completely understanding some of the things he is saying about they way Mr McAskill handled the release, the visit to see Megrahi and especially the dropping of the appeal only days after that visit. I was also very unhappy that Mr McAskill declared the original verdict solid during his speech on the day he announced the release. He also paid tribute to the Scottish Justice System for the manner in which the case was prosecuted.

    The Scottish Government had however abandoned the PTA route, many of us thought, because it meant losing the appeal. That was certainly Christine Grahame's position.

    I am uneasy with remotely going with an Inquiry merely into the release. It could set us back years. The focus will be on the Scottish Government and the media will play very dirty in Scotland. Party politics will take centre stage again and the original injustice related to the fact that Megrahi's human and legal rights were breached by the Judiciary refusing to hear the appeal will get buried again. It is too risky I think.

    Apologies if this is garbled.

  2. No, I see what you're saying. Of course focussing on the appeal does fairly quickly lead back to the unsoundness of the original verdict, if one simply goes on to make that point.

    Samlond and MacAskill must be fully aware of the findings of the SCCRC. Why on earth are they so hell-bent on declaring the conviction sound? Has someone presented them with some killer argument the rest of us are not privy to, or are their arms being twisted?

  3. Rolfe, it is indeed deeply perplexing.