Friday, 21 December 2012

A tale of two governments

[This is the headline over an article published today on John Ashton’s website Megrahi: You are my Jury.  It reads as follows:]

On this, the 24th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, comes a remarkable story, courtesy of the BBC. It carries the encouraging headline Lockerbie bombing: Libyan government set to release files. The first sentence reads: ‘The new Libyan government in Tripoli is prepared to open all files relating to the Lockerbie bombing, the country’s ambassador to the UK has confirmed.’ 

There’s nothing especially new here: the Libyan government, and the National Transitional Council before it, have always made the right noises about cooperating with the Scottish police investigation. It’s the next sentence that is so surprising: ‘However, Mahmud Nacua said it would be at least another year before Libya was in a position to release whatever information it holds.’ The article explains:‘Mr Nacua told the BBC no formal agreement had yet been reached, but that Libya would open the files it holds on the case. He said that would only come when his government had fully established security and stability – a process he believes will take at least a year.’

Of course, the new government has to establish security and stability and, of course, it has other pressing priorities, but in a year’s time it will be almost two and a half years since the old regime fell. Locating and handing over whatever files exist should be a relatively quick and straightforward matter, which should not interfere with the nation building process.

Why, then, is the government stalling? In my view, the most likely explanation is that it has no evidence that the old regime was behind the bombing. If ever there was evidence, it would probably have been shredded a long time ago. I believe it’s rather more likely that there never was such evidence. While I doubt anyone in the new government will be prepared to say this publicly, there are plenty of senior officials who are aware that the case against Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was a sham (and, of course, as things stand, the case against Abdelbaset is the case against the Gadafy regime).

The new government is potentially in a very awkward position, as during the 2011 revolution the NTC played the Lockerbie card in the propaganda war against Gadafy. It would be very difficult for it to now admit that it had no evidence of the old regime’s involvement. And it would be especially embarrassing for former NTC chair Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who claimed to have proof that the dictator ordered the bombing. (It’s worth remembering that when pressed on BBC Newsnight about the evidence, the best he could come up with was that Gadafy’s government had paid Abdelbaset’s legal bills, a fact that was both widely known and, more importantly, completely non-incriminating. I have written more about Jalil’s and other Gadafy regime defectors’ claims here.)

That said, I have a good deal of sympathy with the Libyan government, which is caught in the middle of a mess that, for the most part, is not of its own making. I cannot say the same of the Scottish government, which continues to dig an ever-deeper hole for itself. The latest shovel load comes in a letter I received yesterday from the criminal law and licensing division of the government’s justice directorate, in response to a freedom of information request.

I made the request to get to the bottom of why the government has repeatedly gone out of its way to say that it does not doubt the safety of Abdelbaset’s conviction, even after the publication of the SCCRC’s statement of reasons, which, lest we forget, found six possible grounds for a miscarriage of justice. In response to my original request, the government confirmed that the justice secretary, Kenny McAskill, had read the statement of reasons and that Alex Salmond was provided with a briefing on its contents. You can read the response and the appended documents here. It contained the following statement:

It might be helpful for me to clarify Scottish Ministers’ position concerning the safety of Mr Al-Megrahi’s conviction. Scottish Ministers have stated repeatedly their view that as Mr Al-Megrahi was conyicted in a court of law, that a court remains the only appropriate forum for considering the evidence and determining his guilt or innocence. Following consideration of all relevant matters, only a court has the power to either uphold or overturn Mr Al-Megrahi’s conviction. It remains open for relatives of Mr Al-Megrahi or, potentially, relatives of the Lockerbie bombing victims, to ask the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the case to the court for a further appeal and Ministers have made clear they would be comfortable if this were to happen.

This prompted me to write back as follows:

Your letter points out that the government has stated that a court remains the only appropriate forum for considering the evidence and determining Mr Megrahi’s guilt or innocence. While this is true, it is also the case that the government has repeatedly stated that it does not doubt the safety of Mr Megrahi’s conviction. It is very unusual for a government to take a partisan stance on a conviction that has been referred to the appeal court. This issue was at the heart of my information request, yet is not addressed in your letter.

I would therefore like to know:
1) Why did the government consider it necessary to express the view that it did not doubt the safety of Mr Megrahi’s conviction, rather than simply stating that it was for the courts to determine the safety of the conviction?
2) Why did it consider it necessary to publicly hold to that view after the publication of the statement of reasons and the reading of the statement by Mr MacAskill?
3) Why does Mr MacAskill not doubt the safety of the conviction when the SCCRC found six grounds to doubt its safety?

In yesterday’s letter, which you can read here, the government could offer only the following shameful dissembling response:

As you will be aware, it is not a role of the Scottish Government to investigate allegations that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Any person who alleges that they have been a victim of a miscarriage of justice may apply to the SCCRC, which was established in 1999 to review cases where it is alleged that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, either in respect of a conviction or sentence. Where, following investigation, the SCCRC concludes that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred and that it is in the interests of justice to do so, it will refer the case to the High Court for determination. Mr Al-Megrahi, as you know, chose to abandon his appeal before it was determined by the High Court.

In general terms, in the absence of any court decision quashing a person’s conviction, it would not be appropriate for the Scottish Government to call into question the safety of any conviction which is why it was appropriate for the Scottish Government to state that it did not doubt Mr Al-Megrahi’s conviction as the conviction was at the time of such statements (and indeed continues to be) a matter of court record. We have also made clear that a court remains the only appropriate forum for determining Mr Al-Megrahi’s guilt or innocence and explained the process by which a further appeal could be heard by the court in this case.

This begs the question, if it would be inappropriate for the government to call into question the safety of the conviction, why does it consider it appropriate to state that it does not doubt the safety of the conviction? There is a world of difference between it saying that Abdelbaset’s conviction was a matter of court record, and it saying that it does not doubt the safety of the conviction. The former is a neutral statement of fact, whereas the latter is a highly contentious opinion, which, in my view, represents political interference in the appeal process (although Abdelbaset abandoned his appeal, as the government well knows, his family might launch a fresh application to the SCCRC).

Why did the Scottish government decide to nail its colours to the prosecution mast? In my view it’s because it daren’t admit that Scotland’s foremost independent institution, its criminal justice system (the prosecution arm of which is headed by McAskill’s cabinet colleague, the Lord Advocate), made a hash of the UK’s biggest ever murder case.



    Congratulations John Ashton for this post today to the 24 anniversary of the Lockerbie tragedy. Best post of the year 2012. We are of the same opinion.

    Merry Christmas
    by Edwin and Mahnaz Bollier, MEBO Ltd Switzerland. URL:

  2. Whilst I share your view that Megrahi was a fall guy I cannot understand why no one ever suggests that the SG have been leant on very heavily probably by the US??? You are correct about their dissembling but you seem to suggest some weird motive for this?
    My analysis is simple. They let Megrahi out because they don't believe he was guilty. The Yanks 'squeaked' a little about that because they know he isn't guilty but by God if anyone in Scotland dares to mount an investigation the legions of hell will drop on our ambition to be independent! What other logical explanation could there be???

  3. Dissembling it may be, John, but I still think it's good to see it in black and white. The Scottish government's position is "we have no position here and, until a Scottish court finds otherwise, we accept the Camp Zeist verdict." It shows that MacAskill and Salmond saying that having no doubt about the safety of the Zeist conviction meant only that the Scottish government stands by the judgements of the Scottish courts. Unspectacular but important in trying to work out where MacAskill et al really stand.
    Fourfolksache, I agree with you that the Scottish government probably thinks that Megrahi was not the bomber and also that the US government was briefed about, and was prepared to accept, Megrahi's release. However I think that neither was prepared for the storm from US media, politicians and public when the release hit the news. The US government felt it had to put on a show of outrage, leaving MacAskill to take all the flak. For me, his "courage" was shown, not in the release but in how he coped with the aftermath which I believe really shocked him.
    I disagree about the American government fearing a Scottish investigation. It would simply rubbish the whole idea and instruct its people not to co-operate. So would the UK and Libya. The Scottish police would certainly do all they could to muddy the waters and it's hard to see us coming out of one having made progress.
    As I've argued before, mainly on the Facebook page as Stewart Dredge, an appeal based on the SCCRC report is the best way forward. All it would do is clear Megrahi and no doubt the Americans would attack that verdict but an aquittal on appeal would have more weight than the conviction and it would mean that we could, at last, go on the attack, specifically accuse those behind the fit-up and demand answers.
    I believe that the Scottish government would not be unhappy with this outcome and would not veto an appeal as, I believe, it now has the power to do. MacAskill (and, from memory, Salmond) have both specifically suggested the appeal route. It would not play well for them if they were seen to close down that avenue especially if it iwas supported by the families of Lockerbie victims. Anyway, I think that such an appeal, running through the courts in the run-up to the independence referendum, could be portrayed as the Scottish legal system heroically (I know!) trying to sort out a difficult mess created by corrupt international intrigue.
    I suspect that there are honourable reasons why JfM has appeared lukewarm about the appeal route, of late but I remain convinced that it is the only, practical way forward.

  4. Grendal, I'm not sure I agree with you about Salmond and MacAskill thinking Megrahi was (probably) not the bomber. I think they may simply have been propagandised by the Crown Office and taught to regard JfM as a bunch of mad conspiracy theorists.

    I do agree they would probably not put obstacles in the way of a new appeal. Even if they at one time intended to do that I think the more recent mood music says they wouldn't. However, I don't think they would have to. I think the chances of Megrahi's family getting a new appeal off the ground are currently very slim, however much some of them might want to. I'm not sanguine about victims' family members doing it either. It would be a horrendously expensive undertaking and I'm not persuaded the will is there.

    If indeed a new appeal was launched, I believe JfM would be cheering loudly. However, what can JfM do to facilitate that? Not a lot, realistically. Given that set of circumstances it is necessary to explore other possible avenues, and an independent inquiry is one of these.

    If it were possible to persuade an independent inquiry that the bomb was introduced at Heathrow, as it undoubtedly was, then everything opens up. Clearly, Megrahi would be exonerated, and one would have to start asking why the Lockerbie inquiry failed to follow up the stunningly obvious Heathrow evidence right from the very beginning, before Malta was even a consideration. One might also ask why the Crown concealed from the Court the evidence that would have allowed the compelling inference that the bomb was in the baggage container before the feeder flight landed. That scarcely looks like an accident.

  5. Sorry to be commenting on this one late but I've been catching up on the blog and I'd missed this originally.

    John Ashton is absolutely right to pursue the main point he makes which is that Salmond and MacAskill have absolutely repeatedly claimed that they do not doubt the safety of the original conviction. Neither has the authority to declare such a position and especially in a case where the SCCRC had found SIX grounds suggesting the conviction may have been unsafe.

    To issue letters now suggesting they have never taken such a position in, as John puts it, "nailing their colours to the prosecution" case is thoroughly dishonest. They absolutely took that position. It still makes me rant every time they do it and I've lost count of the times I've heard both of them make almost the same statement.

    Rolfe, we've discussed this before on here and I accept we disagree but I have to say to you again Alex Salmond is not a stupid man nor is Kenny MacAskill. They go on enough about "due process" don't they? What do they call the SCCRC investigation and findings then? Scotch mist? I doubt it would be possible for anyone to blind either of them with propaganda. They are far too shrewd and astute to buckle under mere propaganda.

    And you know just today, while I was thinking about something else, I went looking for the You Tube clip of Kirsty Wark interviewing Alex Salmond in 2007 after we discovered the detail of Blair's dirty little deal in the desert and Salmond had pointed out to Westminster that it was interfering in a matter (Megrahi) that was outwith its jurisdiction.

    During that interview (in which Salmond, incidentally, was magnificent in the face of outright hostility from Wark) Salmond explains to her that he was anxious about formal (UK)agreements being signed in Libya even before the Westminster government was "consulting" the Scottish Government about Megrahi and that his people had only got to know about things being signed through rumour and had actually to approach Westminster asking for an explanation.

    He goes on to say that the Lord Advocate was also concerned that Blair's activities and agreements would "compromise judicial proceedings already underway in this case in Scotland". (That was the appeal.) So there was a time when both Salmond and MacAskill were willing to acknowledge the existence of that Appeal and, I have no doubt, the grounds of it. For them to go from that position to pretending it never existed is the most exasperating and disheartening thing ever.