Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Jury Still Out on Justice for Megrahi

[This is the headline over an article posted today by Ruth Wishart, one of Scotland’s most distinguished journalists, on her blog. It reads as follows:]

Today in Edinburgh a group of eminent people - or according to the Lord Advocate a group of "conspiracy theorists"- are holding a media event to highlight what they and many senior lawyers believe to be a further attempt to close down assertions that the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was not responsible for placing the bomb on board Pan Am 103.

Twenty seven years from the tragedy and four years from the death of Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the controversy surrounding his conviction and the events at the Scottish court convened at Camp Zeist refuse to go away.  The Justice for Megrahi group which contains a number of prominent campaigners including Len Murray, Iain McKie, the novelist James Robertson and Jim Swire - whose daughter Flora was a victim - have made no fewer than 9 allegations concerning the flawed presentation or omission of vital evidence, and the information withheld from defence lawyers.

Amongst the areas they flag up is their continuing  belief that the bomb was loaded at Heathrow not Malta. that the identification of Megrahi as  the man who purchased clothing in the suitcase  supposedly containing the bomb came from a CIA paid informant, and that the fragments of circuit board recovered from the bomb did not conform, as argued, to the design sold to and used by Libya.

More seriously still, they allege that the prosecution misled the court and the bench when relaying the heavily redacted cables from US intelligence surrounding Megrahi's identification.

But the reason for today's conference is that Operation Sandwood,  the police investigation into these charges  surrounding the behaviour of crown witnesses, and indeed the Crown Office itself, is due to be published imminently.  In the normal course of events this report would go to the Lord Advocate.  Justice for Megrahi members believe this would amount to the Crown Office being the arbiter of its own actions and that a fully independent recipient must be found.

Interestingly Police Scotland yesterday announced that they would have the Sandwood report scrutinised by a QC they appointed "to ensure the critical requirement of demonstrating independence from the Crown'. While the timing of this intervention is hardly co-incidental, it remains to be seeen whether it will allay the disquiet of the JfM protagonists. 

Certainly, thus far they have been unpersuaded by the Lord Advocate's assurance that he can produce such an objective source from within his own organisation. 

Their scepticism is shared by some very prominent figures in the Scottish legal establishement.

Brian McConnachie QC says that:  “Having declared the allegations to be defamatory, unfounded, false and misleading, it is in my opinion impossible for any decision of the Lord Advocate arising out of the allegations to be seen to be impartial, objective or unbiased.”

While Alan Page, Professor of Public Law at Dundee University believes that  “Public confidence in the administration of criminal justice requires there to be no doubt that decisions whether or not to institute criminal proceedings are taken free from political or any other form of bias.”

The waters here are further muddied by the ongoing Crown Office's own investigation into Lockerbie which seeks to uncover which accomplices were also involved.  But, since that process is predicated on an assumption of Megrahi's guilt, it's clear that the two reports might prove entirely contradictory.

In addition a petition submitted to Holyrood's Justice Committee remains open some years after it was first laid.

I have no special expertise legal or otherwise in assessing the strength of the allegations made by the Megrahi committee.  But I do have huge respect for the integrity and knowledge of people like Jim Swire who has exhaustively reviewed the evidence, and James Robertson who painstakingly researched all aspects of the trial during his research for his Lockerbie based book The Professor of Truth.

None of the others involved would appear to have any particular axe to grind save their continuing doubts that there may have been a gross miscarriage of Scottish justice.

Similarly it seems to me foolish to ignore the legal opinions of such senior judicial figures as Brian McConnachie and Alan Page.

But in any event the core legal argument they make in the context of Operation Sandwood is a sound one - if you have an involvement in the matters under consideration, you cannot be the judge of a report on them.

The Lord Advocate, if he is right about these allegations being "misleading, unfounded" and the product of "conspiracy theorists" has surely nothing to lose by letting the report land on a wholly independent desk.


  1. I sincerely welcome this comment from Ruth Wishart. She is quite plainly not only hugely engaged by the issue but also does not shirk from confronting the major question marks arising from it head on, as all who are concerned about the administration of the Scottish justice system do and others certainly ought to before matters get utterly, or even embarrassingly, out of hand.

    "Interestingly Police Scotland yesterday announced that they would have the Sandwood report scrutinised by a QC they appointed 'to ensure the critical requirement of demonstrating independence from the Crown'. While the timing of this intervention is hardly co-incidental, it remains to be seeen whether it will allay the disquiet of the JfM protagonists." RW.

    If I may speak without authorisation from the Committee of JFM, the fact that Police Scotland, via the offices of Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, Operation Sandwood SIO Detective Superintendent Stuart Johnstone have comported themselves in a manner that, throughout our liaison with them, has convinced us of their bona fides in the matter of the Sandwood investigation. The fact that Police Scotland quite exeptionally employed the services of an independent QC of their own chosing to survey this operation (and, in fact, did so from the earliest stages of the Sandwood investigation - as ealier publicised on this blog) serves to support our confidence in their work. Whilst the JFM Committee has, perfectly correctly in my opinion, never been privy to the operational details of Sandwood, we are greatful to former Chief Constable Sir Stephen House for having taken this issue by the scruff of the neck.

  2. Thank you, Robert F.
    The absurd thing about this case is, that the wrongdoing is so crystal-clear that only a few sincere people from within the system can shake it.

    We are not too used to people putting their behinds on line in this matter. Kudos to House and Co if they really act as honorably as JfM has expressed along the way.

    And soon 'the safe career-choice' about what side to take in this matter may no longer be 'close your eyes, and support the system and the conviction'.