[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 clichés. 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.