Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Change for the better at the top of the Crown Office

[What follows is excerpted from a report just published on the website of The Herald:]

Scotland's new Lord Advocate has been named as senior lawyer James Wolffe.

The QC - currently dean of the historic Faculty of Advocates - will replace Frank Mulholland, who stood down at the Holyrood election to become a judge.

Mr Wolffe, one of the country's most respected legal thinkers, has been nominated by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon but still must be formally approved by parliament and the Queen.

He will be backed up as head of the Crown Office by a new solicitor general, Alison Di Rollo, currently a senior advocate depute pursuing rapists and one of the prosecutors who successfully convicted Marek Harcar, the murderer of businesswoman Moira Jones in a Glasgow park.

Ms Di Rollo replaces Lesley Thomson, who has told Ms Sturgeon "she wishes to pursue new challenges".

The two law officers complete Ms Sturgeon's cabinet and are, like the rest of her government, gender-balanced.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I am extremely pleased to recommend the appointments of James Wolffe and Alison Di Rollo as Scotland’s senior law officers.

“James has an outstanding legal background and extensive experience at all levels, including the House of Lords, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union.

“Alison led the work of the ground-breaking National Sexual Crimes Unit (NSCU) for three years, having previously held the role of deputy. Her outstanding leadership in this most sensitive of areas has inspired confidence in all connected to it.”

Mr Wolffe said: “I thank the First Minister for nominating me to the office of Lord Advocate. If I am appointed, it will be a great privilege to serve Scotland in that role.”

Ms Sturgeon thanked Mr Mulholland and Ms Thomson for their service. She said: "In his time as Lord Advocate, Frank has made a substantial contribution to both the law and to Scottish society.

[RB: I am delighted that the First Minister has departed from the recent practice of appointing a Lord Advocate from within the ranks of Crown Office civil servants. This was an experiment that was constitutionally inappropriate and contributed greatly to the low esteem in which the Crown Office has come to be held by the practising profession. It is, however, slightly disappointing that the new Solicitor General is someone who has been a Crown Office employee for over thirty years. 

It is to be hoped that one of the first priorities of the new Lord Advocate will be to consider all of the evidence now available about the Lockerbie case and the conviction of Abdelbaset Megrahi.]

Truth revealed on Lockerbie bomb timer

[This is the headline over a report published on the website of The Scotsman on this date in 2008. It reads as follows:]

The top-secret document at the heart of the Lockerbie bombing appeal confirms beyond doubt the bomb timer was supplied to countries other than Libya, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

The document also gives "considerable detail" on how the use of a small bomb concealed inside a radio-cassette recorder was consistent with Palestinian terrorists rather than Libyans, according to a prominent legal source who has seen the paper.

Important pillars of the Crown's case against Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan serving life for the atrocity, are "knocked down" by the contents of the document, added the source.

Last week, during a three-day hearing in Edinburgh, Scotland's senior judge, Lord Hamilton, and two of his colleagues listened to legal arguments about whether Megrahi's defence should be allowed to see the document, which was passed to the UK by a foreign power.

The UK Government, represented by Advocate General Neil Davidson QC, is opposing the defence application. Lord Advocate Eilish Angiolini has indicated she would hand it to the defence team but for the public interest immunity status afforded to it by Westminster.

The existence of the document emerged during the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission's exhaustive three-year investigation into whether Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice when he was convicted of the murder of 270 people.

The information in the document was a key part of the Crown's case that the timer used in the bomb was supplied only to Libya. It also appears to confirm that the method of attack was typical of a Palestinian terror cell in Germany.

Scotland on Sunday's source confirmed: "The document dispels any doubts about the supply of MST-13s (timers] elsewhere."

He added: "There is considerable detail about the method used to conceal the bomb. The use of a small Semtex bomb concealed inside a Toshiba radio-cassette recorder was not linked to Libyan terror activity, but to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), the first suspects in the case."

The source conceded these matters had been "aired previously or pointed to by other evidence" but added: "(It] puts that evidence on another footing because it gives it 100% credibility because of where it comes from.

"I don't think, in itself, it either clears Megrahi or proves anyone else was responsible, but there is material that would undoubtedly be helpful to his defence and, in isolation, would lean away from the Crown's case and the verdict of the judges."

The source declined to reveal which country had provided the information. But, last night, another well-placed source said there were new and compelling indications that it may have been provided by Germany and contained information from an Iranian defector, Abolghasem Mesbahi. [RB: According to Kenny MacAskill in his book The Lockerbie Bombing the document in fact came from Jordan.]

The MST-13 timer used in the bomb was made by Swiss firm Mebo. Its co-owner, Edwin Bollier, has made it clear that the timers were supplied to others, including the Stasi, the former East German secret police. German intelligence would certainly be able to provide evidence of the Stasi's links to Mebo, and to the PFPL-GC's use of Semtex in Toshiba radio-cassette recorders.

In October 1988, two months before Lockerbie, the German secret police cracked a PFPL-GC cell operating in Neuss and recovered four such devices. The bomb-maker, Jordanian Marwan Khreesat, told German agents that a fifth device had been removed from the flat he was working in by the cell's leader, Hafez Dalkamoni, prior to their raid.

It was never recovered and many, including Khreesat himself, believe it was his device that brought down the flight over Lockerbie.

Mesbahi has provided the Germans with intelligence that has enabled them to clear up terror crimes, but he was discredited by the UK when he was put up as a potential witness at the trial of Megrahi and his co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, who was cleared.

In 1996, Mesbahi claimed the bombing had been ordered by his former masters in Tehran, not Tripoli, and it is believed that the document was handed over to the Foreign Office later that same year.

There is growing suspicion among Lockerbie experts that the document could even provide the UK with a way to get Megrahi out of jail without facing a re-trial and thorough examination of aspects of the case that would embarrass the Crown Office and Westminster.

It is possible Megrahi will be freed this year on the fairly straightforward grounds published by the SCCRC. The normal practice in such a landmark case would be to order a retrial, but that has the potential to discredit the UK and the US on the world stage.

However, if Megrahi's conviction were quashed and the appeal court ruled he could not have a fair re-trial without the hidden material going to his defence, he would be freed on those grounds and the matter would eventually draw to a quiet conclusion.

Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, Flora, in the Lockerbie bombing, said he was concerned that the document might prove to be more important than its contents. He said: "If the document is not available to the defence at the appeal, then that appeal will be seen around the world, quite rightly, as unfair.

"The significance is likely to be not in the content, but on the impact it will have on the process, unless we can crack the impasse we're in."

Monday, 30 May 2016

MacAskill is saying that at Camp Zeist, diplomacy and politics trumped justice

[What follows is the complete text of James Robertson’s review of Kenny MacAskill’s The Lockerbie Bombing. The shorter version published in The Herald can be read here.]

In May 2000, two Libyan citizens, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, went on trial before a specially convened Scottish court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. They were accused of acting in concert to place a bomb contained in a suitcase on a plane flying from Malta to Frankfurt; the suitcase was then transferred as unaccompanied luggage to another flight going to London Heathrow, and there transferred again to Pan Am flight 103, the target, which was blown up, en route to New York, over the town of Lockerbie on the evening of 21 December 1988. All 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground, were killed.

In January 2001, the court acquitted Fhimah, but found Megrahi guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He remains the only person convicted of involvement in the bombing. To many people, the verdict did not make sense then, and subsequent revelations have only reinforced a widespread belief that Megrahi was the victim of a shocking miscarriage of justice.

This book is former Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill’s account of the atrocity, of the subsequent investigation and trial, and of his own part in what followed. In 2009, it fell to him, in his ministerial role, to decide whether to grant Megrahi, who was by then suffering from terminal prostate cancer, compassionate release from prison. That decision – to allow Megrahi to go home to Libya to die – forms the centrepiece of Mr MacAskill’s narrative, but it is not the most revealing part.

The book suffers from Mr MacAskill’s inflated and syntactically-challenged writing style: ‘The investigation, meanwhile, marched meticulously on. The dynamics of both tension and camaraderie between various agencies continued, though in the main all worked well with each other.’ The narrative is scattered with words like ‘literally’ (bodies were ‘literally destroyed, smashed to smithereens’), and ‘doubtless’ (a prop for assertions unsupported by any evidence). Mr MacAskill deprives many of his sentences of verbs, and fattens others with clich├ęs. Readers who might reasonably expect a full set of references to back up his account of this long, controversial and unfinished story, will be disappointed: there is no index, no bibliography and, of the 93 footnotes, 67 come from just four sources, one of these being the Scottish Government’s own website. A cover quotation from Clive Stafford Smith, the human rights lawyer, credits Mr MacAskill with a ‘forensic attention to detail’. I beg to differ.

None of this would matter if Mr MacAskill were writing about UFOs or his favourite movies. His subject, however, is the biggest criminal case in Scottish legal history – an event he chooses to describe on page 1 as ‘one of the greatest whodunnits of all time’. It matters greatly that a trained lawyer should use imprecise and careless language to discuss complicated questions of evidence. It matters, for example, that, in referring to the timer which the court at Camp Zeist accepted was used to detonate the bomb, Mr MacAskill calls it ‘the MST-13 model, known as an ice-cube timer’. In fact, MST-13 timers and ‘ice-cube’ timers were completely different, and that difference – as the court’s judgement made clear – was crucial to the prosecution’s case. If the bomb was triggered by an ‘ice-cube’ timer – as many critics of the investigation believe it was – then had it been loaded in Malta it would have exploded between there and Frankfurt, rather than 38 minutes after takeoff from Heathrow. Such a basic mistake does not inspire confidence that Mr MacAskill has a full grasp of his subject.

His publishers, Biteback Publishing – owned by Lord ‘Call Me Dave’ Ashcroft and former blogger and Conservative candidate Iain Dale – do not seem unduly bothered by these shortcomings. Could it be that they don’t mind if the book damages the reputations of the author and the SNP administrations in which he served?

The most astonishing passages occur when Mr MacAskill offers his opinion as to who planted the bomb. Syntax purists, look away now: ‘Megrahi had been to Malta the month before, which was probably preparatory for the scheme and involved discussions on the logistics of clothes, the suitcase and the bomb equipment. He may even have brought the timers in with him.’ At this point Mr MacAskill ratchets up his use of the conditional tense – always a handy tool when indulging in pure speculation: ‘He [Megrahi] would meet with others in the [Libyan] embassy…he would not be the bomb maker. That would have been prepared in the Libyan People’s Bureau…’ Again, there is no attempt to substantiate these wild surmises.

Mr MacAskill proceeds to demolish the findings of the Camp Zeist court. Of the items bought in Tony Gauci’s shop in Malta which were packed in the bomb suitcase, he writes: ‘The clothes were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi.’ Correctly describing as ‘rather implausible’ the evidence produced by the prosecution that Megrahi was the purchaser, MacAskill continues, ‘But, if Megrahi didn’t buy the clothes, he was certainly involved.’ Really? How?

Megrahi’s role, it seems, was to fly from Tripoli into Luqa Airport in Malta on 20 December 1988 ‘with the suitcase that was to transport the bomb’. ‘The suitcase,’ we are informed, ‘was a Samsonite model, sold heavily in the Middle East market’ – as if this proves anything. These statements not only disregard the fact that Megrahi and his co-accused Fhimah (the station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa) arrived in Malta on that date with no check-in luggage, they also rely solely on the testimony of a CIA-paid informer Abdul Majid Giaka, whom the judges dismissed as an utterly unreliable witness, concluding, ‘We cannot accept the evidence of Abdul Majid that he saw the two accused arriving with a suitcase. It follows that there is no evidence that either of them had any luggage, let alone a brown Samsonite suitcase.’

Mr MacAskill wades deeper into the mire. Further undermining the Camp Zeist judgement, he writes that, on the morning of 21 December, Megrahi took the suitcase (now apparently loaded with the bomb) to the airport, ‘but it was Fhimah who would get it airside and beyond security.…Placing a bag behind and into the system was a relatively simple task given the accreditation and access Fhimah had.’ At the trial the Crown argued that just such a sequence of events had occurred. The judges, however, concluded that ‘there is no evidence in our opinion which can be used to justify this proposition and therefore at best it must be in the realm of speculation. Furthermore, there is the formidable objection that there is no evidence at all to suggest that the second accused was even at Luqa airport on 21 December.’ Fhimah was consequently acquitted.

The judges also observed that ‘the absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 [at Luqa] is a major difficulty for the Crown case.’ In just a few bold sentences, Mr MacAskill has completely overcome this difficulty.

Mr MacAskill finds it ‘hard to imagine how there could have been any other verdict in the circumstances.’ This is strange, as neither prosecution, defence teams, the families of the victims nor most independent observers expected one of the accused to walk free and the other to be found guilty. Mr MacAskill continues: ‘In many ways, as with Megrahi and Fhimah, Scots law and its judges were simply actors in the theatre that had been created to circumvent and solve both a diplomatic impasse and political problem. Scots law convened the trial, and yet found itself on trial.’

Read those sentences carefully: a former Justice Secretary is effectively saying that, at Camp Zeist, diplomacy and politics trumped justice. For how many years have critics of the proceedings been saying this, while Mr MacAskill, the Scottish Government and the Crown Office have maintained that justice prevailed?

Mr MacAskill’s solving of the problem of how the bomb was placed on flight KM180 relieves him of the need to address with any seriousness the accumulated mass of other evidence pointing in other directions. He pays no attention to the post-trial discrediting of the infamous timer circuit-board fragment linking Libya to the bomb, nor to Morag Kerr’s  convincing explanation, in her 2013 book Adequately Explained by Stupidity?, of the much more likely scenario that the bomb was loaded directly onto Pan Am flight 103 at Heathrow. He skims lightly over the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s 2007 report which indicated at least six grounds on which Megrahi’s conviction might be unsafe. Of John Ashton’s 2012 book Megrahi: You Are My Jury, the most comprehensive analysis of the entire Lockerbie saga, he writes, ‘There was little new that came out in the book or media other than a rehash of what had gone before and the same lines from all parties involved.’ Mr MacAskill, it seems, is not impressed by arguments that really are based on a forensic attention to detail.

To summarise: Mr MacAskill asserts that Fhimah, acquitted by the court, planted the bomb, and that Megrahi, found guilty by the court, did not buy the clothes from Tony Gauci’s shop. He also acknowledges that without Gauci’s identification of Megrahi as the purchaser, the case against him would have collapsed. This, then, is the new position of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice who, while in office, repeatedly articulated the Scottish Government’s view that it ‘did not doubt the safety of Megrahi’s conviction’. So, too, did the then First Minister Alex Salmond, who nevertheless endorses Mr MacAskill’s book as ‘the most credible explanation yet published of who was really responsible for the downing of Pan Am flight 103’. They cannot have it both ways: either they think the judges got it right, or they think they got it wrong.

Mr MacAskill admits that, had Megrahi’s second appeal reached court, his conviction might well have been overturned. He then makes this shameful comment: ‘But, this account of how the bombing was carried out and by whom is based on information gathered meticulously by police and prosecutors from the US, Scotland and elsewhere. It’s also founded on intelligence and sources not available for a court or that have only come to light thereafter.’

Well, that’s all right then. Megrahi didn’t buy the clothes, the grounds of his conviction were shaky at best, but we know from other sources that he was involved and anyway he’s dead now, so that’s good enough for the Scottish justice system.

If Mr MacAskill does have information pertinent to this still ‘live’ case, he is duty-bound to share it with the police. Police Scotland are currently concluding a major, three-year investigation, ‘Operation Sandwood’, into nine allegations of possible criminality on the part of police officers and Crown representatives during the original investigation and trial. These allegations were made by the organisation Justice for Megrahi (of which I am a member) and six of them were first drawn directly to Mr MacAskill’s attention, in strict confidence, on 13 September 2012. They were passed from his office to the Crown Office, which immediately, before the police had even begun to investigate them, made a public statement declaring the allegations to be ‘without exception, defamatory and entirely unfounded’. Some of the allegations relate to the very aspects of the case that Mr MacAskill now says the court got wrong.

For more than a quarter of a century the Lockerbie case has been a dark stain on the Scottish justice system. Kenny MacAskill rubs and rubs at that stain. Whatever his intent, the effect is not to make it vanish but to make it look far worse.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Lockerbie justice prevented by political interference

[This is the headline over a letter from Dr Jim Swire published in today’s edition of The Sunday Times. It reads as follows:]

Your article “MacAskill cites flaws in case against Megrahi” (News, last week) suggests behind-the-scenes moves by America to befriend Libya in search of good trade relations at the time of the alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s release by Kenny MacAskill.

Those who watched the trial of Megrahi at Zeist unfold in 2000/1 became aware of extraordinary intrusions into court practice on behalf of the US. These included an abortive attempt to deny the court access to the contents of CIA cables which showed that its much-hyped “star witness” Jiaka was in fact known to the CIA to be a liar and a fantasist. The court rejected his evidence as unreliable except for still accepting that Megrahi “must have” carried a sinister suitcase into Luqa airport on the day of the tragedy.

The plot and the motives and methods of execution for revenge seem straightforward enough. Iran used the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command as mercenaries to exact revenge against the USA. What we need is to understand why the stories about Gaddafi’s Libya being involved were invented and supported for so long, and by whom.

Out of respect for the innocent victims of Lockerbie, on the plane and on the ground, justice must never be allowed to be polluted by international politics in such a way ever again.

[RB: Here is the text of Dr Swire’s letter as submitted to The Sunday Times:]

Your article today suggests behind the scenes moves by the US, to befriend Libya in search of good trade relations at the time of the alleged Lockerbie bomber Megrahi's release by Kenny MacAskill.
Those who watched the trial of Megrahi at Zeist unfold back in 2000/1 became aware of extraordinary intrusions into court practice on behalf of the US. These included an abortive attempt, supported to a remarkable extent by Scotland's then Lord Advocate, Lord Colin Boyd, to deny the Court access to the contents of CIA cables which showed that their much hyped 'star witness' aka Jiaka was in fact known to the CIA to be a liar and a fantasist.
The court rejected his evidence as unreliable except for still accepting  that Megrahi 'must have' carried a sinister suitcase into Luqa airport on the day of the tragedy.
Their Lordships had to admit that there wasn't any evidence that Megrahi used his presence there to put a suitcase of any kind onto Air Malta Flight KM180, (presumably on the hope by him that it would be carried round via Frankfurt to Heathrow and PA103).
For such a far fetched plan to work, a long running timer and a lot of luck with transfers at Frankfurt and Heathrow in the pre-Christmas rush would be required.
Post-trial evidence has emerged that a key piece of forensic evidence accepted by the court as part of just such a timer was in fact a fake and could not possibly have come from the Libyan stockpile. It was a clever fake and must have been produced by an organization having the skills of advanced circuit board manufacture at its disposal.
Likewise, not one credible piece of evidence in all these years has emerged confirming any of the other alleged examples of activities indicating Libyan involvement in the plot.
Our own William of Occam, inventor of Occam's razor: (interpreted as the belief that the simplest  explanation which agrees with all the known facts of a case is the most likely to be correct) can perhaps contribute here.
Details well set out in the book Adequately Explained By Stupidity? by Morag Kerr show that evidence from Heathrow, led in court but rejected, indicate that the suitcase containing the bomb was loaded onto Pan Am 103 under Heathrow baggage handler Mr Bedford and his assistant Mr Kamboj; having entered his baggage container well before the connecting flight for 'Megrahi's bomb' had even landed at Heathrow from Frankfurt. [RB: Dr Swire is mistaken on this point. The evidence discussed by Dr Kerr was not led in court and rejected: it was not led at all, though some of it was known to the Crown and not disclosed to the defence.]
At the same time the Syrian terror group the PFLP-GC had developed and tested anti-aircraft bombs whose electronics dictated that if they could simply be got aboard a target aircraft at the airport of take off, they would automatically explode around 40 minutes post take off by sensing the climb to cruise altitude.
The Lockerbie flight flew for 39 minutes from Heathrow until over Lockerbie.
Why would the PFLP-GC allow one of their devices to be used at Heathrow, and how would they get it to Heathrow anyway? The PFLP-GC had close ties to Teheran for funding and were near bankruptcy in 1988. After Lockerbie they were solvent, while at Lockerbie it seems likely that Teheran got its widely expected revenge for the shooting down of one of their Airbuses by a US missile cruiser the USS Vincennes in the Gulf, with the loss of 290 Iranian civilian lives, five months before Lockerbie.
It also so happens that an Iran Air transport aircraft landed at Heathrow on the 21st of December 1988, long before the flight from Frankfurt had arrived.
The plot and the motives and methods of execution for revenge seem straight forward enough. Iran used the PFLP-GC as mercenaries to exact revenge against the USA. What we need is to understand why the stories about Gaddafi's Libya being involved were invented and supported for so long, and by whom.
Out of respect for the innocent victims of Lockerbie, on the plane and on the ground, Justice must never be allowed to be polluted by international politics in such away ever again.

The unravelling of Kenny MacAskill ... and the case against Megrahi

[This is the headline over a review by John Ashton of Kenny MacAskill’s book in today’s edition of the Sunday Herald. It reads as follows:]

It was supposed to be Scotland’s publishing event of the year, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s long awaited account of his controversial decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Serialised in the Murdoch press and endorsed by former First Minister Alex Salmond, The Lockerbie Bombing looked set to enhance the reputations of MacAskill and the criminal justice system he served.

In the event, the book has made an even bigger splash than expected, but not in the way that he intended. By the time it was published last week, it had plunged the Megrahi case into chaos and left MacAskill looking rattled, if not a little foolish.

The book gives the inside track on the grubby international power play that surrounded his decision to allow the terminally ill Libyan to return home. But it goes much further, answering, according to its dust jacket, “how and why [the bombing] happened – and who was really responsible”. It is here, in his efforts to play sleuth, judge and jury, that MacAskill has come unstuck.

He argues that Megrahi was guilty – a significant player in a much larger plot. One of the book’s few genuine revelations, however, details a secret document which implicates the terror group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) in the Lockerbie bombing carried out on December 21 1988.

MacAskill in his book identifies who sent the document and who received it - an act strictly forbidden by the law. As the Sunday Herald revealed last week, in publishing such details, MacAskill was in breach of a Whitehall gagging order and very likely, at least in the opinion of the Foreign Office, of the Official Secrets Act. The former Scottish Justice Secretary later admitted that he was ‘unsure’ whether he had broken the act.

MacAskill downplays the letter’s significance, claiming it was sent soon after Lockerbie, and before evidence had emerged to implicate Libya and Megrahi. This is one of the book’s many factual errors. At Megrahi’s second appeal it was revealed that the UK government had seen the letter in September 1996, five years after it had claimed that Lockerbie was a ‘Libyan operation from start to finish’.

Overshadowing these revelations, however, is a single sentence buried among the book’s 322 pages, which reads: “Clothes in the suitcase that carried the bomb were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi.”

Its significance rests on the reasoning of the three Law Lords who convicted Megrahi. They concluded that he had sent a bomb concealed within a suitcase on Air Malta flight KM180 from Malta to Frankfurt and that it was later transferred to Pan Am flight PA103 at Heathrow. The case was largely circumstantial, with only two points that directly incriminated Megrahi in the bombing. One was his presence at Malta’s Luqa airport when KM180 was loading and the other was the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci that he resembled the man who bought the clothes packed in the suitcase.

The judgment was clear that the failure to explain how Megrahi had got the bomb on to KM180 was ‘a major difficulty for the Crown case’, however, it accepted that when taken together with other evidence – crucially Gauci’s – the inference that the bomb came from Malta was ‘irresistible.’ 

The most important link in the Crown case, Gauci’s evidence was also the weakest.

The clothes purchaser he described was much older and bigger than Megrahi and there is persuasive evidence that the purchase took place when Megrahi was not in Malta.

As the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission noted when it referred Megrahi’s conviction to the appeal court in 2007, the assumption that Megrahi was the clothes purchaser was critical. Without it, there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

By Monday evening MacAskill, had conceded in two TV interviews that Megrahi’s conviction was probably unsafe, a startling volte face, given that the Scottish government, which he served as justice minister, repeatedly stated that it did “not doubt the safety of the conviction.”

His concession was not lost on the Justice for Megrahi (JfM) campaign group, which believes the Libyan was wrongly convicted. By then they had written to Police Scotland’s Operation Sandwood team, which is investigating allegations of criminal misconduct made by JfM against some of the Crown servants responsible for the conviction.

JfM say MacAskill is an important and compellable witness, and that the police must establish the basis for his claim that Megrahi was not the clothes purchaser.

‘The weaknesses in the identification evidence were well known to the Scottish government when MacAskill, as Justice Secretary, was claiming that the conviction was safe,’ says JfM’s Iain McKie, a former police superintendent who spent 15 years battling the police and Crown Office to clear the name of his daughter Shirley McKie.

‘So what does Kenny know that we don’t that has caused him to change his mind? If any of it was previously secret, then the Crown Office has to explain why it wasn’t disclosed to the defence. Was Mr MacAskill aware of it when as government minister he was declaring the conviction safe and turning down JfM’s petition for an independent public inquiry? Was he in any way misleading or deceiving the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people?’

There is a still more important question: is MacAskill saying publicly what the Crown is saying privately? ‘The book reads,’ says McKie, ‘as if the Megrahi-wasn’t-the-clothes-purchaser-but-was-guilty-anyway line has been fed to him.

“If it was the Crown doing that, then the consequences are immense, because they have a duty to report that to the court, in which case the conviction falls.’

Publicly the Crown Office is sticking to the line that Megrahi’s conviction is safe, but it must be dismayed by MacAskill’s statements, not least, his barely veiled criticism of the secret $2 million reward payment made to Gauci, which the Crown Office tacitly sanctioned.  

MacAskill continues to insist that Megrahi was guilty, but his case is built largely on untested evidence and assertions, and he has sidestepped important exculpatory evidence that has emerged since Megrahi’s conviction. All rather surprising for a former defence lawyer.

This flags another intriguing question: how, given his legal background, could MacAskill have landed himself in such a mess? Did he not realise that revealing details of the document subject to a Whitehall gagging order might be illegal? And did he not foresee the consequences of conceding that Megrahi was not the clothes purchaser?

His book’s subtitle is ‘The Search for Justice’. Ironically, its unintended consequence may be to help achieve justice for Megrahi. 

John Ashton is the author of Megrahi: You are my Jury (Birlinn, 2011) and Scotland’s Shame: Why Lockerbie Still Matters (Birlinn, 2013). From 2006 to 2009 he worked with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s legal team.

Lockerbie deals

[29 May is an important date in the Lockerbie saga. Here are two BBC News reports relating to events on that date:]

Libya has offered $2.7 billion to compensate families of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie air disaster, a law firm representing the families said.

Each victim's family would receive $10m, but the money would only be handed over piecemeal, as sanctions on Libya were lifted. (...)

The UK Foreign Office welcomed the offer, if genuine, as "a sign that Libya wishes to respond to the requirements of the UN resolutions".

However, a Foreign Office spokesman said Libya had yet to meet all the UN's demands.

The New York law firm of Kriendler and Kriendler gave relatives details of the Libyan offer, which gives a breakdown of how the compensation would be paid.

When UN sanctions are lifted, 40% of the total will be disbursed, and another 40% when the US sanctions are removed.

The remaining 20% will be paid when Libya is removed from the US State Department's list of sponsors of international terrorism. (...)

Relatives said that compensation would close one chapter of the case, but they would still press for an independent inquiry.

The UK Government has published details of a deal struck with Libya on prisoner exchange, which it insists does not cover the Lockerbie bomber's case.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond had voiced concern at Holyrood that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi could be transferred back to a jail in Libya.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said no deal had been signed over the future of al-Megrahi. (...)

The memorandum of understanding with Libya was signed last week by Mr Blair during a trip to the country. It was created on 29 May [2007].

It states that the two sides will shortly "commence negotiations" on prisoner transfer, extradition and mutual assistance in criminal law, with a final deal signed within 12 months. (...)

Addressing MSPs, [Alex Salmond] said: "I have today written to the prime minister expressing my concern that it was felt appropriate for the UK government to sign such a memorandum on matters clearly devolved to Scotland, without any opportunity for this government and indeed this parliament to contribute." (...)

He added that while the Scottish Executive supported the UK Government's desire for better relations with Libya, the lack of consultation with Holyrood over the memorandum was "clearly unacceptable".

"This government is determined that decisions on any individual case will continue to be made following the due process of Scots law," the first minister said.