[This is the headline over an article in today's edition of The Herald by the paper's chief Scottish political correspondent, Robbie Dinwoodie. What is being referred to is, of course the SCCRC report on the Megrahi conviction, not Megrahi's appeal case. Details of the latter have already been published on Mr Megrahi's own website. The article reads as follows:]
Alex Salmond has personally pledged to change the law to allow publication of the details of the appeal by the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.
The First Minister insisted that while believing a full public inquiry would be of limited value because of devolution restrictions, he could ensure that the full “statement of reasons” by the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission (SCCRC) in its support for an appeal could be published. He said: “We will be introducing primary legislation to enable that report to be published in full.
“It was an investigation that took several years and I believe the full statement of reasons, if not answering every question about this affair, nonetheless will shed substantial light and give information that the families and indeed the general public are entitled to have.”
But Dr Jim Swire, the father of a Lockerbie victim who has been an outspoken critic of the Megrahi conviction, had doubts about the latest concession and believed the Scottish Government was continuing to stall.
He said: “I had a nasty shock when I discovered that the Government had made it more difficult to get at the material that the SCCRC had assembled – something they changed by secondary legislation that they are now proposing to change back by primary legislation.”
The Scottish Government insists that at every stage it has moved towards fuller disclosure, ending a legal bar on SCCRC publishing information and now looking to block any external veto on release.
The exchange comes at the end of a week when Labour has accused the SNP Government of “dealing” over the Megrahi release, and Mr Salmond has denied that, pointing to “hypocrisy” in Labour’s stance north and south of the Border.
SNP backbencher Christine Grahame gave a “cautious welcome” to the First Minister’s announcement but questioned the necessity of primary legislation, a Bill which takes far longer to pass than an order. “I think this could be done by secondary legislation which could be done sooner but whatever happens I am told there will at least be fewer obstacles to full disclosure. I have been pushing to have impediments removed. There will be no closure on this until we have full disclosure of SCCRC evidence.”
Professor Robert Black, the legal expert who helped broker the Camp Zeist trial but came to believe the Megrahi conviction was unsound, has already expressed concern that even if the law is changed there could be data protection rules which continue to prevent full disclosure of SCCRC information. [RB: The view that I have consistently expressed, on this blog and in the media, is that if the Scottish Government proceeds by statutory instrument, then any relevant data protection rules are overridden (because that is what the enabling legislation, the UK Parliament's Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, section 194K(4), specifically provides). The position is not quite so clear if the Scottish Government proceeds by Act of the Scottish Parliament. The cynic in me wonders whether that is precisely why the Scottish Government is choosing -- quite unnecessarily -- to proceed by the cumbersome method of primary legislation rather than by the much speedier and easier route of secondary legislation. It is yet another stalling, diversionary manoeuvre.]
A Government spokesman insisted they had been as open and transparent as possible, adding: “Following the announcement last December that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has been unable to secure the necessary consents to release its statement of reasons in the Megrahi case due to the constraints of the current legislation, we now intend to bring forward primary legislation to overcome the problems presented by the current consent provisions.”
Labour’s Richard Baker said: “The documents that need to be released are the medical evidence that Mr Salmond relied on before he released Megrahi some 18 months ago and the minutes of the meeting between himself and Jack Straw where the First Minister reportedly asked for a deal on the prisoner transfer agreement.”
For the Tories, John Lamont said: “Al Megrahi dropped his appeal and was convicted of Britain’s biggest mass murder. Alex Salmond is barking up the wrong tree and if he wants to treat the Lockerbie bomber as a special case then far better that he publishes all the medical advice.”
[The Herald also today publishes an editorial headed Lockerbie report must go public. It reads as follows:]
It is not known exactly who prevented publication of the report by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) into the conviction of Adelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi.
Neither do we know why.
The SCCRC’s statement of reasons for reaching its conclusion that his conviction may have been unsafe, cannot be published without the “unqualified consent” of all key parties – including the police, the Foreign Office and Megrahi himself. [RB: Megrahi's stance on disclosure is set out in a statement dated 30 June 2010 which can be read here.]
One or more of these parties has vetoed publication. It is yet another barrier in the way of a true understanding of the events which led up to the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.
Now Alex Salmond has pledged to introduce new primary legislation to enable the SCCRC report to be published, should the SNP form a Government after the Holyrood elections in May.
The statement of reasons is a substantial document, although it is not clear whether Mr Salmond’s personal pledge includes the full 800-page dossier detailing Megrahi’s grounds for appeal, which formed part of the Commission’s four-year investigation into the case.
Nevertheless, Mr Salmond argues that its publication is the best way to satisfy some of the outstanding questions and “shed substantial light” on the case against Megrahi and the verdict that was reached.
He argues that a public inquiry – called for by relatives of some of the 270 people who died in the attack – would not be useful. Not least due to the international element of the case, such an inquiry would be “hugely” limited in its remit and powers, Mr Salmond argues, particularly in its ability to call witnesses and seek documents.
That may be true. [RB: It is not. An inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 has greater powers of compulsion than the SCCRC has. Still, the SCCRC managed to conduct a wide-ranging investigation -- domestic and international -- into the Megrahi conviction. The Scottish Government's claim is nothing more than a shabby pretext for inaction.] But the bereaved father Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter died in the bombing, questions the Scottish Government’s sincerity. Scottish Government ministers previously changed the rules to make publication harder, now they want to make it easier, he says.
So, is Mr Salmond’s announcement merely political posturing? Or stalling for time? Some opponents feel the SNP are more than happy to keep the issue in the spotlight, to highlight Labour’s acute embarrassment over a clear difference between Labour ministers’ private negotiations in London and Labour MSPs’ public criticisms of the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds in 2009.
But as to posturing or electioneering, any electoral benefit from the pledge to legislate is likely to be little better than neutral.
There have also been reports that the SCCRC report could be more readily published, simply by changing the rules which allow others to veto publication. Even if Mr Salmond can pass a new law, some say the data protection act could make it very hard to publish, as the SCCRC deliberations contain considerable personal information. There are also concerns that the report may be uncomfortable for the Scottish legal establishment – but the possibility of embarrassment is no reason to block the information.
The Lockerbie bombing and the trial of the only man convicted of the outrage remain a lasting stain on the Scottish legal system and without greater openness, one which will not easily be removed – even when Megrahi dies. [RB: My emphasis.]
Practicalities aside, a way should be found to publish the SCCRC’s findings. Mr Salmond’s commitment to ensure they are brought into the open is a step forward towards transparency and openness, and as such, it should be welcomed.
[A pretty representative example of current US views on Megrahi is to be found in a column headed Lockerbie bomber having a good laugh by Roger Simon published today on the website of the Chicago Sun Times.]