[What follows is the text of a review by James Robertson of Kenny MacAskill’s The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice that appears in today’s edition of The Herald:]
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 suitcase containing a bomb on a plane flying from Malta to Frankfurt; it was 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 Lockerbie on the evening of 21 December 1988. All 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground, were killed.
In January 2001, Fhimah was acquitted, but Megrahi found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. To many people, the verdict made no sense. Subsequent revelations have only reinforced a widespread belief that Megrahi was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
This book is former Cabinet Secretary for Justice (and Herald columnist) Kenny MacAskill’s account of the crime, investigation and trial, and his own part in what followed. In 2009, it was his decision to grant Megrahi, by then suffering from terminal prostate cancer, compassionate release from prison. That decision forms the centrepiece, but not the most revealing part, of Mr MacAskill’s narrative.
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 well worked 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 clichés. Readers who might reasonably expect a full set of references to back up his account will be disappointed: there is no index, no bibliography and, of the 93 footnotes, 67 come from just four sources.
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. It matters greatly that a trained lawyer should use imprecise and careless language to discuss complicated questions of evidence.
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." Here 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…" 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 bringing with him the brown Samsonite suitcase that was to transport the bomb. This claim relies solely on the testimony of a CIA-paid informer, whom the judges dismissed as an utterly unreliable witness. "There is no evidence," they concluded, ‘that either [Megrahi or Fhimah] had any luggage, let alone a brown Samsonite suitcase.’
Further undermining the Camp Zeist judgement, Mr MacAskill 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, as station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines, 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." The trial judges determined that this proposition was, at best, in the realm of speculation. "Furthermore," they said, "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", and 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: the 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?
By ‘solving’ the problem of how the bomb was placed on flight KM180 Mr MacAskill relieves himself of the need to address with any seriousness the post-trial discrediting of the infamous timer circuit-board fragment linking Libya to the bomb; the accumulated mass of evidence pointing to the more convincing explanation that the bomb was loaded directly onto Pan Am flight 103 at Heathrow; or the most comprehensive analysis of the Lockerbie saga to date, John Ashton’s 2012 book Megrahi: You Are My Jury. He skims so lightly over the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s 2007 report, which indicated six grounds on which Megrahi’s conviction might be unsafe, that one suspects he sees the thin ice beneath him.
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. Yet, as he also acknowledges, without Gauci’s identification of Megrahi as the purchaser, the case 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."
So, 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, and that’s good enough for Scottish justice.
If Mr MacAskill does have information pertinent to the case, he should share it with Police Scotland, who are currently concluding a major investigation, Operation Sandwood, into 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 were first drawn directly to Mr MacAskill’s attention, in strict confidence, on September 13, 2012. Some of them relate to the very aspects of the case that Mr MacAskill now says the court got wrong.
The Lockerbie case has long been a 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.