In the light of suggestions that have been made over the past few months by American officials and commentators that the United States might wish to have Abdelbaset Megrahi handed over to the United States for retrial in America, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider some of the legal problems that would be faced in bringing this about.
As I said in a blog post on 6 March 2011:
"The United States Government, along with that of the United Kingdom, proposed the UN Security Council resolutions that set up the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist. Both governments thereby undertook internationally binding obligations to comply with the legal processes thus set in motion. The United States cannot lawfully renounce those obligations either unilaterally or in conjunction with whatever new government it chooses to recognise in Libya. To have Abdelbaset Megrahi lawfully handed over to the US would require a further UN Security Council resolution. The United States, as a permanent member of the Security Council could, of course, propose such a resolution. But would the other members support it? The US could also, naturally, simply ignore international legality (as it did, with the UK's supine support, in launching the invasion of Iraq) and seize Megrahi by force (with or without the connivance of a new Libyan regime)."
Furthermore, the Constitution of the United States, provides (art VI, clause 2): "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land". This means that the binding international obligation entered into by the United States in respect of the Lockerbie trial precludes any US court from trying Megrahi since that would be a breach of the international agreement regarding Lockerbie jurisdiction which the US itself co-sponsored.
Moreover, during the Camp Zeist trial, US government lawyers sat amongst the prosecutors and when their presence was questioned the Crown Office responded that the Lord Advocate could select whomsoever he chose to form part of the prosecution team. It can be strongly argued that this active participation by United States officials, as part of the prosecution team, in a trial which the US co-sponsored, personally bars (estops) the US from instituting its own national criminal proceedings.
As mentioned above, the US could sponsor a new UN Security Council resolution permitting it to retry Megrahi. But is there any realistic prospect of such a resolution being passed? The United States could also seek to pass internal US legislation permitting a retrial. But, in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution amending the existing ones, would not any such legislation be liable to be struck down under art VI clause 2 of the Constitution?
[This post has now been picked up in a news item on Scottish lawyers' magazine The Firm.
Because I shall be on duty at Gannaga Lodge for the next few days, it is unlikely that there will be further blog posts before Sunday, 24 July.]