Then, just eight weeks after the SNP came to power, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission granted al-Megrahi leave to appeal, identifying six grounds for believing that a “miscarriage of justice may have occurred”.
The prospect of an appeal heaped pressure on the Scottish Government. By November 2007, Cabinet Office papers appear to show that Mr MacAskill was ready to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK Government and Libya, in exchange for concessions from Westminster over firearms legislation and slopping out in prison, where prisoners use pots in their cells for human waste.
According to minuted discussions, Mr MacAskill talked to Jack Straw, then Secretary of State for Justice, about the possibility of a deal. “There was then a conversation when (MacAskill) asked for a deal. He obviously spoke to Salmond,” Mr Straw told The Times last year.
The Scottish Government has angrily denied that it was ready to trade al-Megrahi in late 2007, but has been unable to produce its own minute of the crucial discussions that took place on December 19.
In 2009, al-Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal spared the Scottish Government the potential embarrassment of an acquittal. With a grim irony, it is the British relatives of the victims of the bombing, such as Dr Swire, who are likely to campaign for a public inquiry into al-Megrahi’s conviction, after his death.
Yesterday, Mr Ashton said that the case of al-Megrahi showed Scottish justice in “a very bad light”, and warned the Scottish Government that it risked being dragged “into a huge scandal”. He added: “They (the SNP) has now to stand up and distance themselves from the Crown Office because there is so much that the Crown Office has withheld in this case.”
Mr Ashton said the most compelling piece of new evidence related to a tiny fragment of circuit board, believed to have been from the bomb’s timer. The Crown argued that the circuit board was one of many sold to the Libyan Government by Mebo, a Swiss company. It was found in the remains of a shirt collar, which in turn led to a shop in Malta, owned by Tony Gauci. Though his evidence too is contested, Mr Gauci identified al-Megrahi as the man who bought the clothing contained in the bag that held the bomb.
According to Mr Ashton, the timer was the “golden thread” in the prosecution case, but it was broken. He said that forensic analysis showed that the circuit board was coated in pure tin, and not in a tin-lead alloy, the only kind supplied by Mebo.
Independent scientists, consulted by the Crown, had noticed the difference but maintained that the tin fragment and the tin-lead amalgam were “similar in all respects”.
Worse, said Mr Ashton, the scientists conducted tests that proved that a tin-lead coating would not have been changed to pure tin by the force of a bomb’s explosion.
It was a “mighty scandal”, said Mr Ashton, that the results of the tests were not disclosed by the Crown before the trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands and were only passed to alMegrahi’s lawyers a month before he left prison.
In December last year, Frank Mulholland, the Lord Advocate, said: “The trial court held that . . . Megrahi did not act alone. This is a live enquiry and Scottish police and prosecutors will continue to pursue the evidence.”
A Crown Office spokesman said that the evidence against al-Megrahi had been rigorously tested at his trial.
“In light of his abandonment of his appeal, the conviction for the murder of 270 people and the judicial determination of his guilt stand,” he added. “The only appropriate forum for the determination of guilt or innocence is the criminal court.”
Detectives are expected to visit Libya soon as part of the continuing Crown Office investigation into the bombing.
[An opinion piece by The Times’s Scotland editor, Magnus Linklater, contains the following:]
If al-Megrahi was so seriously ill, why was he not given the treatment in a Scottish hospital that he immediately received on his return to Libya? Why has the Scottish Government never published the medical advice they were given? Why did they incur the wrath of world opinion in order to allow a convicted terrorist to go home? And was al-Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal one of the conditions under which he was granted release?
It is this last question that is now under scrutiny. The conspiracy theory says that the Government was anxious to avoid an appeal because it might have revealed the unthinkable: that the highest-profile prosecution ever mounted in a Scottish court was based on unsafe evidence, and that a succession of judges and Lords Advocate connived in covering it up.
Like all conspiracy theories, that takes some believing. But now that it has been put forward, a denial from the Scottish Government is not, in itself, enough. There are too many unanswered questions. We now know that, long before his final illness, in December 2007, Mr MacAskill was exploring, with Foreign Office officials, ways of releasing al-Megrahi under the Prisoner Transfer Treaty.
So, release was in the air then, and speculation is rife now. Three things are needed to dispel it: first, Mr MacAskill must publish the medical evidence; second, he must disclose the full extent of his contacts with Libyan and UK officials; and finally he must deliver on the promised legislation which would enable full disclosure of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, on which al-Megrahi’s appeal was allowed to go forward.
Only openness will dispel the accusations. By allowing them to fester, Mr MacAskill is damaging his government and his reputation.