Tuesday, 9 November 2010

MSPs to press ministers for Lockerbie probe

[This is the heading over a report on the website of the Deadline Press & Picture Agency. It is the only detailed account that I have been able to find of this afternoon's hearing before the Holyrood Public Petitions Committee. It reads as follows:]

MSPs are to demand a detailed explanation from the Scottish Government of why they oppose an independent inquiry into the conviction of the Lockerbie bomber.

Leading campaigners today (Tue) presented the parliament’s petitions committee with more than 1,600 signatures backing the move.

Members of the Justice For Megrahi group (JFM) told MSPs a full, independent inquiry was the only way to restore the reputation of the Scottish legal system.

Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the December 1988 bombing, dropped his second appeal and returned to his homeland after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Members of JFM believe the unanswered questions about the case have left a dark shadow over the victims and Scottish legal system.

Canon Patrick Keegans, who was the local catholic priest in Lockerbie at the time of the disaster, said: “People have never found a full answer to Lockerbie and this will always be a source of distress.”

Keegans, who lived in Sherwood Crescent, part of which was obliterated by falling debris, said the case was about the “redemption of the Scottish justice system”.

He added: “We have been denied justice from the very beginning. I am very doubtful about the conviction of Megrahi. While doubt remains the victims are denied justice. What we need is the truth about Lockerbie.

Keegans, now the Canon in charge of St Margaret’s Cathedral, Ayr, said: “Obstacles have been put in our way by the Crown Office and by the judiciary. There seems to be a desire to put a lid on this and keep it there.”

“We need truth and we need justice to be at peace. Otherwise we are back in December 1988 in the darkness.”

Jim Swire, whose daughter, Flora, died in the bombing, said “the reputation of Scottish justice has been shot to pieces”.

He said only an impartial inquiry could rebuild that reputation. Swire said the original criminal investigation was run by Scottish police forces and involved Scottish lawyers. They were two obvious groups who might be interested in protecting their reputation, he added.

“Speaking as a relative who has been looking for the truth for 22 years I think it would be vital that any inquiry is seen to be led impartially. Such an inquiry would be of little value if it was deemed to be in any way limited by groups involved in the trial.

Swire said an inquiry “is the only way we will be able to heal the terrible wounds done to our justice system”.

Professor Robert Black, emeritus professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University, said: “The fact of [Megrahi’s] conviction is being used as an excuse for not holding a wide ranging inquiry.”

Black refuted suggestions from one committee member that an inquiry would create a constitutional crisis by pitching government against judiciary.

He said: “We are asking the Scottish Government to set up an inquiry. The government cannot deny there is domestic and international concern. We are asking them to investigate these concerns.”

First Minister Alex Salmond has said he has confidence in the conviction of Megrahi.

After hearing today’s arguments, the committee agreed to write to the Scottish Government asking them to respond to the request for an independent inquiry.

The petition has already attracted the support of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Have I Got News for You? TV star Ian Hislop.

[Today's proceedings before the Public Petitions Committee can be viewed here.]


  1. [...the boys did well, so they did!]

    "...suggestions from one committee member that an inquiry would create a constitutional crisis by pitching government against judiciary."
    This question shows the Petitions committee do not have expertise in legal matters, and are a bit thin on government protocol too, apparently. The Justice committee (which sat earlier and is populated with solicitors etc) would not have asked that question because they understand that there IS a structural mechanism for reviewing verdicts consistent with the parliament's constitution.
    However, of course government spokesmen will always support ALL verdicts of it's courts - until such time as a review would overturn or sustain a ruling - if they didn't then there WOULD be a rift between justiciary and government.

  2. I was privileged to be present today to witness the powerful presentation to the Public Petitions committee by Jim Swire, Bob Black, Iain McKie, Robert Forrest and Father Pat Keegans.

    It was remarkable that two committee members confessed to being poorly briefed on the atrocity and the details of the case - a cause for scandal in itself.

    It was very apparent that the evidence presented by the Justice for Megrahi committee was a revelation to many facing them, and the only conclusion they could reasonably come to was that the Scottish Government has serious questions to answer about its opposition to an independent inquiry.

    Nonetheless, we were all mildly astonished when the petition was accepted without demur and the immediate promise of action to further its demands was made.

    Without doubt, a victory for the Justice for Megrahi campaign that will cause enormous problems for the Scottish, Westminster and US govenrments.

  3. The heartiest of cheers for every one o' ye. I was quite surprised - but very pleased - to hear Mr Butler's proposal.

    (By the way, see here for what could be the polar opposite of this meeting.)

  4. Thanks to all of you for your support.

    As requested by the convener, I wrote yesterday afternoon to the committee clerk giving examples of cases where ministers had referred judicial decisions to the Scottish Law Commission, an issue which arose out of the suggestion that there might be some constitutional impropriety in the Scottish Government's instituting an inquiry into the decision of a Scottish court.

    I also took the opportunity to point out that where a recommendation is made for the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy (a function that now reposes in Scotland with the Scottish Ministers) this almost inevitably flows from an inquiry that the government has caused to be held into the safety of the conviction in question.

  5. I'm watching the video off and on right now. Prof., I just wanted to say ...

    losing attention, rambling Brits ...

    The one guy (sry) who asked if an international inquiry wouldn't be needed to find what happened, you performed brilliantly. You cut in with an answer (around 25:00) that had me pumping my fist in the air. I hope it gets on the news.

    He had no more questions, I note.

  6. 'losing attention, rambling Brits'?

    Well the Petitions committee did not lose their attention. They listened to the rambling Brits with growing concern evident on their faces. In the end, they surprised everyone by accepting the petition and promising to act. Result!

    One might add that the JFM committee were not, according to one I spoke to, aware that they would be required to contribute more than Jim Swire's opening 3-minute statement. So the many questions, most requiring detailed answers to complex issues, had to be dealt with spontaneously. The answers they gave provided much information that was entirely new to many on the Petitions committee, which doubtless swayed them towards favouring this highly significant demand.

    I think the JFM committee members did a brilliant job and I won't hear a word against them.

  7. losing attention, rambling Brits'?

    OMG... some rough draft thing, passing idea, error in copy and paste... It did happen though. LOL.

    Just wanted to thank Ben Six for the tip on Marquise's planned presentation. I put out a call to Syracuse students over that.

  8. In fact, I didn't mean to past anything in that message, which is what's odd...

    I should reply to David now.

    I think they all did great, especially as it went on past that "logjam" part around 25:00. Again, awesome. Mr. McKie's presence was I think extremely helpful here. Dr. Swire's embarassment at convincing Megrahi t face trial, compared to Megrahi's shame at letting Swire down surrendering his appeal to get back. Poignant. Getting to explain the clothing purchase date issue was also a bonus - a concrete example of "well that is problematic, isn't it?"

    Kudos on a mostly-blistering performance. And the question will be passed on now, to whatever effect.

  9. Thanks for clarifying, CL. Agree with what you say

    David Benson

  10. CL: losing attention, rambling Brits'?

    Not that I'm jumping to your defence, or anything, because your record of supporting JFM++ (especially since support from across the pond is negligible) is impeccable and long standing. However, I actually thought all members of the Petitions committee were ramblers too - I might not have used that word exactly, but certainly, given the fact that their main occupation is talking and thinking on their feet, I thought they were a bit jilted and disjointed in their delivery. (However, I wasn't there so maybe it is just a mistaken perception because lots of other stuff was happening when they were talking)
    Contrast that with the five most eloquent of gentlemen presenting the petition - who exuded quiet assured confidence in a non arrogant manner - and handled the questions like they were seasoned actors delivering the dramatic coup de grâce at the end of a tense thriller.
    I watched it again thinking, is this really not rehearsed???

  11. Well put, blogiston. They did indeed land powerful blows with great moral force. The reason is that they are clearly on the side of right, sure of their facts and, as exemplified by Dr. Swire, unblinking in the face of power. I was so proud to be there to witness it.

  12. Persistence, relying on the facts, and stressing the right points will pay off. Those that signed the petition were very well represented indeed!

    Is anyone that is informed about such matters willing to speculate on how long it might take the Petitions Committee to make its recommendations and for a decision on whether or not to hold an independent inquiry to be made?

    How can those in the mainstream media support not having an inquiry from this point onward? If they do they are supporting a flawed justice system.

    Any politician anywhere now that opposes justice will have their reputation stained eventually.

    Flora would be so proud.

    I would give anything to shake the gentlemen's hands that presented to the Committee to congratulate them on what they have done and are doing, and praise them for the impeccable manner in which they are going about their business, which affects us all.

  13. Dear Commentators,

    Thank you very much indeed for your plaudits. It is with the knowledge that we have this kind of support from yourselves, plus the 1,646 and all those who clearly would have but couldn't sign the petition that makes our task so much easier. And, by the way, none of it was rehearsed other than the initial statement. The five of us have different backgrounds, different styles, and, all of us have been banging on about this for so long now that we tend to act as one.

    I must say, it came as something of a surprise to find that the Public Petitions' Committee had both conducted their own decision making meeting in front of us, and, opted to fire the inquiry application straight back to government with the stipulation that the government justify in law their position before we'd even had time to draw breath! Anyway, whatever the reasons, the important thing is that things are moving and the ball is now firmly back in the government's court.

    Thank you again. It is on your foundations that we gain our confidence to keep fighting, whoever the opposition might be.

    Robert Forrester (Sec, JFM).

  14. I've just managed to watch the whole thing, and indeed, that went well.

  15. "Contrast that with the five most eloquent of gentlemen presenting the petition - who exuded quiet assured confidence in a non arrogant manner - and handled the questions like they were seasoned actors delivering the dramatic coup de grâce at the end of a tense thriller."

    I guess rehearsals weren't needed. They never are when they're all telling the truth. No danger of anyone forgetting their lines. Well done to all.

  16. "However, of course government spokesmen will always support ALL verdicts of it's courts - until such time as a review would overturn or sustain a ruling - if they didn't then there WOULD be a rift between justiciary and government."

    Exactly Bloggy. And this verdict was indeed reviewed (by the SCCRC) whose findings are still on record and lay there from the moment the SNP came to power, being ignored by the Court of Appeal. Six grounds to suggest a miscarriage of justice could have occurred. That left the verdict very much open to challenge and both Salmond and MacAskill know this. And this wasn't any old case. Those findings have not gone away. To declare the original verdict sound in the face of such findings is was therefore inappropriate and quite disturbing. They behave as if the SCCRC's own ruling on the case had never existed. Just look at the evidence out there that we know of yet these two are behaving like this? It is bizarre.

  17. Mr. Forrester I am sure you and those with you were not alone in your surprise. That the Committee made a decision more or less on the spot surprised me also, pleasantly of course.

    Let's hope this is a sign of better times to come for the search for truth and justice.

    I'm proud to be a signatory to the Petition and of those that presented it.

  18. I thought I signed the petition on 25th October, by text message while the website was down. However, my name does not appear on the list of signatories on the petitions website.

  19. Check the petitions web site - I thought I saw something about getting your name added late to a petition. Considering the circumstances, they ought to grant such a request.

    I presume it's symbolic, but it's still worth doing if you want to be able to say, "I signed it".

  20. Thanks, Rolfe. I don't need to be able to say that I signed it, but I thought that it was intriguing that although I had texted 417 and my name to 07537400395 (I still have the text in the sent items on my phone) my signature has not been counted. Tin-foil hat territory, I suppose.

  21. Prof B, on that constitutional question did you not previously say on the blog that even with the dropping of the appeal the government of the day could take the matters raised by the SCCRC forward when they had highlighted such serious issues about such a huge case? I think you cited grounds such as it being in the interests of justice to proceed to review such issues? It was also agreed that the dropping of Megrahi's appeal did not wipe out those SCCRC findings. Their statement was made independently and publicly and surely any responsible government, indeed the entire Scottish Parliament, would want to pay attention and investigate further?

  22. I see they allowed the single entry Forrester Cockburn and Alison Cockburn to stand.
    So much for one man, one vote - and the suffrage of Emily Pancake who chained herself to the King's horse - all for nothing?

  23. Dear alan_b,

    We sympathise with your position. We ourselves are awaiting answers to one or two questions regarding that and also on information which would assist in calculating a precise figure for signatories/time on the petition. Obviously, once we obtain these details, we'll publicise them.

    Disappointing though it is for you and others in the same boat, the main thing now however, is that the petition has begun to make its mark. Moreover, although this institution is quite some way away from being as influential and binding as the like prevailing in Switzerland, the Public Petitions' Committee have certainly gone a step further, and taken it more quickly, than JFM had expected at the time of our meeting.

    Robert Forrester.

  24. Quincey: Can I say mentioning Switzerland was a bad move? Any minute now expect to receive a 100 square foot of pidgin ramblings from a locale near Zurich.
    'Least I keep my nonsense compact.

  25. Responding to JoG (4 comments above).

    Yes, where a criminal justice concern has arisen out of a particular judicial decision or conviction, there is nothing to prevent the Scottish Government conducting an internal inquiry into the matter, or setting up an independent inquiry into it. Indeed, this is precisely what happens whenever the government (formerly the Secretary of State for Scotland, now the Scottish Ministers) is petitioned to recommend the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy in respect of a particular convicted person.