Thursday, 25 August 2011

If Megrahi is to be tried again, then let it be in the new Libya

[This is the headline over Iain Macwhirter's column in today's edition of The Herald. It reads in part:]

‘More bad news for Megrahi,” said the London newspaper headline.

“Scottish probation officers are on his trail.” I’m not sure the man convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history is exactly shaking in his wheelchair at the prospect of East Renfrewshire Council being on his case. Under the terms of his release from Greenock Prison two years ago, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi is supposed to be in regular contact, but I doubt if a crack team of special probation officers is preparing to be dropped into the war zone to track him down.

I would worry rather more about those reports in June that a deal has been struck between Barack Obama and the Libyan rebels to hand Megrahi over to American special forces so he can be extradited to America. There’s something of a bidding war underway among US politicians right now over bringing back the head of Megrahi.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, says he wants the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing seized and brought to face trial in America. This would raise some interesting legal issues, not least because Megrahi has already been convicted by a Scottish court in Camp Zeist in 2001 and the US doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Scots Law. Of course, the US Navy Seals have a tried and tested way of cutting through these legal technicalities, as the late Osama bin Laden discovered in Pakistan.

It’s all becoming just a little tasteless, this hot pursuit of a dying man. David Cameron, William Hague and Nick Clegg didn’t help by saying that they agreed Megrahi should be brought back to jail. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have no jurisdiction here either and they would have been wiser to keep their traps shut. Many US politicians and Lockerbie parents believe the British Government shared responsibility for springing Megrahi in the first place.

The New York lawyer, James Kreindler, who has represented the Pan Am 103 victims is in no doubt. “It was all a scam so (British Petroleum) could get its oil leases for Libyan oil fields,” he said yesterday (...)

Of course, as we in Scotland know, oil and UK policy had nothing to do with the release of Megrahi in August 2009 by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill. He was released on compassionate grounds under due process of Scots Law on the basis of evidence from Dr Andrew Fraser, the director for health and care for the Scottish Prison Service, that Megrahi had only three months to live.

It’s hardly surprising the Americans find this account hard to swallow, and not just because Megrahi is still going strong two years on. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, admitted in February that Britain had pursued a covert policy to “discreetly” help the Libyans to repatriate Megrahi. The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was fully aware of this policy even as he condemned the Scottish Government for releasing Megrahi – one of the most blatant examples of diplomatic hypocrisy since, well, since Britain sold £100 million of arms to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, including tear gas and sniper rifles, while condemning his record on human rights.

No-one comes out of this affair untainted, except, of course, the victims. Even their families were criticised for accepting £1.7 billion in “blood money” from the Libyan government. The release of Megrahi has undoubtedly caused damage to Scotland’s image abroad, especially in the US, and has raised awkward questions about the competence of Scots Law. Perhaps, indeed, reopening the case could be the way to resolve this whole issue. But it has to be in Libya. It would surely be in the interests of everyone – victims, lawyers, politicians in America and Britain – if, rather than be assassinated by US special forces, or extradited to face an unfair trial in the America, Colonel Gaddafi’s former intelligence officer were to be tried on Libyan soil. He has a lot to tell the world about what had been going on under his watch. From IRA arms shipments, to bombs on planes. Hopefully, the Transitional National Council will see the opportunity here to begin the process of peace and conciliation by making Megrahi face trial in Tripoli.

In the end, they and only they have legal authority to hold Megrahi to account for actions that have so damaged Libya abroad and at home. American lawyers and Scottish civil rights activists would be free to provide the new Libyan prosecution service with all the evidence that has been collected on this extraordinary case over the last quarter century, including the evidence re-examined by the Scottish Criminal [Cases] Review Commission (SCCRC).

One reason why feelings run so high in America is that they still believe Megrahi really did bomb Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 273 passengers. In Scotland, many prominent public figures, like the former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, and Dr Jim Swire, of the Lockerbie victims’ groups, are adamant that there was a miscarriage of justice and that Megrahi is innocent.

Kenny MacAskill claims this climate of opinion didn’t influence his decision, but it provided the backdrop. He must have known the SCCRC also had serious doubts because it agreed to allow Megrahi the right to make another appeal. This was only abandoned when Megrahi was released on health grounds, thus saving Scottish law any further embarrassment. We will know more when the SCCRC report is published next month. But for most people the revelation that the key prosecution witness, Maltese shop owner Tony Gauci, had been offered large sums of money, perhaps $2m, to give evidence fatally undermines the prosecution case.

If there were to be another trial, all this could be re-examined and the conspiracies laid to rest. Assuming, of course, that Megrahi lives that long – as well he might since he is believed to be on expensive drugs that slow the progress of prostate cancer.

We don’t need lynch law here. The best way to honour the dead of Pan Am 103 would be to let the new democratic Libya settle its own account with its bloody past.

[In the same newspaper three letters appear on this subject, under the headline Cameron and Hague should keep their counsel on Megrahi’s future.]

1 comment:

  1. We will know more when the SCCRC report is published next month.

    This seems to be a misunderstanding by Iain Macwhirter. There is a quote in last Sunday's Sunday Herald saying

    A secret report casting doubt on the conviction of the Lockerbie bomber is to be published under a new law to be unveiled by the Scottish Government next month, when it sets out its legislative programme for Parliament.

    So what we may see next month is the legislative programme, not the SCCRC report itself.