Thursday, 30 April 2015

Encouraged by senior civil servants to apply for prisoner transfer

[What follows is a report published in the edition of The Times for 30 April 2009:]

The man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing must decide whether to apply to serve the rest of his sentence at home in Libya, surrounded by his family, or remaining in a Scottish jail and attempt to clear his name.

The choice comes after Britain ratified a long-awaited prisoner transfer agreement with Libya yesterday. In order to pursue a move to a Libyan jail, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, 57, who has continually protested his innocence and is dying of cancer, would have to abandon his appeal, which began on Tuesday at the Court of Criminal Appeal, in Edinburgh.

Last year it emerged that al-Megrahi has prostate cancer, which has now reportedly spread to his bones. On Tuesday, Margaret Scott, QC, counsel for the Libyan, told appeal judges that his health was deteriorating and that he would require frequent breaks from watching the proceedings via a live link to Greenock prison, where he is being held.

Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, is serving a life sentence with a minimum term of 27 years after being convicted in 2001 of the atrocity.

All 259 men, women and children on board Pan Am Flight 103 died, along with 11 residents of the Scottish Borders town who were killed by falling wreckage.

A spokesman for the [UK government] Ministry of Justice confirmed yesterday that the prisoner transfer agreement had now come into effect. “The instruments of ratification have been exchanged and the agreement is now in force,” he added.

Last night al-Megrahi's legal team refused to be drawn on whether or not he will apply for a transfer. Should he do so, the decision will ultimately be made by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary.

Although the transfer deal, negotiated between Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi during a meeting in 2007, caused a furious cross-border row when Alex Salmond, the First Minister, insisted that Scotland should have been consulted, the fate of prisoners in Scottish jails remains a devolved matter. A spokeswoman for Mr MacAskill said: “It would be for Scottish ministers to decide on any application for prison transfer in relation to any prisoners in Scotland.

“We do not discuss hypothetical applications and will not prejudge or anticipate any decision. Scottish ministers judge each application on its own merits,” she added.

[A report published in The Herald on the same date contains the following:]

In a tacit acknowledgement that Megrahi is likely to be allowed to return home, the Crown Office wrote to all relatives of the victims two weeks ago explaining the transfer process.

Earlier this year, The Herald revealed that Libyan officials had been encouraged by senior civil servants from both sides of the border, including Robert Gordon, the head of the Justice Department in Scotland, to apply for Megrahi to be transferred as soon as the agreement was ratified.

Megrahi, whose case was referred back for a fresh appeal in June 2007 because it "may be a miscarriage of justice", is suffering from terminal prostate cancer and relatives and campaigners are concerned that he will not survive the appeal, which is expected to last at least 12 months - partly because the court will be sitting for only four days a week on alternate months.

His request for interim bail was last year turned down by three appeal court judges.

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