Monday, 22 August 2016

MacAskill has reason to be angry at Megrahi criticism

[This is the headline over a leader in today’s edition of The Scotsman. It reads as follows:]

Former justice secretary’s condemnation of US and UK authorities over his decision to free Lockerbie bomber is unsurprising

Few actions by the Scottish government raised more international controversy and dispute than the decision by former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Not only did the affair give rise to all manner of conspiracy theories as to who was – and was not – involved in the bombing, but it also brought widespread criticism of the Scottish government over his release. Megrahi lived another three years, giving rise to deep anger among the families of the Lockerbie victims and criticism from the US government.

Yesterday, seven years after authorising his release, the former justice secretary rounded furiously on his critics, accusing key players in the affair of hypocrisy. He said Scotland was “set up to take the rap” for the global fall-out of the Lockerbie bombing because the country lacked the “might and power” of the international elites it was up against.

The downing of PanAm flight 103 over the town killed 270 and was the UK’s worst terrorist incident. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was convicted in 2001 by a special Scottish Court in the Netherlands. In July 2009, his legal team asked for him to be released from prison on compassionate grounds after he developed prostate cancer.

Mr MacAskill ordered his release under a 1993 Scottish statute enabling the release of any prisoner deemed by competent medical authority to have three months or less to live.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday, Mr MacAskill said he was “contemptuous” of the US and UK authorities, condemning the “hypocrisy” of other key players in the affair, such as the UK Government which did oil deals with Libya in exchange for an agreement to return Megrahi. “Obama, Clinton, Straw all came out and said ‘don’t agree with it – absolutely appalling’. And they had been conniving and working for it. We actually delivered what they wanted, which was to let Megrahi go.”

While there is nothing new in MacAskill’s charge, the force of his condemnation speaks to the intensity of feeling over the affair within St Andrews House and the degree to which the Scottish government felt it had been treated as a convenient scapegoat for international ire. Subsequent comment has also singled out former Prime Minister Tony Blair over his dealings with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in particular the terms of a £450 million deal giving BP access to Libyan oil.

While Mr MacAskill re-iterated his belief that Megrahi was not the principal participant in the bombing, he also said that the forthcoming police investigation was likely to dismiss much of the allegations of criminality made by the Justice for Megrahi group which believes the late Libyan was not involved.

Whatever consolation it affords Scotland’s former Justice Secretary, the reputation of Tony Blair has been largely destroyed by his Middle East dealings. And Mr MacAskill has reason still to be angry, given that so few emerge with any credit over this affair.

[An article in today’s edition of The Times reads in part:]

Alex Salmond feared that the country’s first SNP government might be brought down by the hugely controversial release of the Lockerbie bomber, Kenny MacAskill has revealed.

The former justice secretary said he had been prepared to take full responsibility for the release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi in August 2009 to make sure that the whole administration did not fall with him.

Mr MacAskill released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds after it emerged that the Libyan, the only man convicted of the bombing, was dying of cancer.

This sparked howls of condemnation, particularly from many of the relatives of the American victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, and from opposition politicians.

The principle of collective responsibility normally covers all major government decisions, meaning that ministers share the kudos when things go well and share the blame when they go wrong.

Mr MacAskill told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday that the convention had effectively been shelved to protect the first SNP administration.

He revealed how worried Mr Salmond had been that the al-Megrahi controversy had the potential to bring down the then minority SNP government, which had only been in place for two and a half years.

“My cabinet colleagues left it entirely with me. I kept the first minister appraised but we decided as soon as we knew Megrahi was ill, at an early juncture of the first Nationalist administration, that there should be one person who should take responsibility for it,” Mr MacAskill said.

“We could lose a cabinet secretary, but we weren’t going to lose our first government and that’s how it remained and I was grateful of the support of my colleagues.”

A Scottish government source said afterwards that it was true that Mr MacAskill had been kept in virtual isolation at this time, simply to protect his ministerial colleagues.

“He was effectively ringfenced, he was sealed off,” the source said.

Mr MacAskill said he believed that Scotland had been a pawn in an international game involving highly lucrative commercial deals, government relations and behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations. “We took the rap for Lockerbie but there were huge international deals going on that were commercial and were security and we were just flotsam and jetsam, the same as the bags that fell on the poor town of Lockerbie,” he said.

The former minister , who has written a book on the crisis , The Lockerbie Bombing: the Search for Justice, said he was convinced that al-Megrahi had played a part in the deaths of the 270 victims.

He believed, however, that his role had been minor, comparing it to the role of a getaway driver in a bank robbery. “He was a bit-part player . . . I do not think al-Megrahi had the technical skills to plant a bomb.”

He believed the Iranians had offered a bounty for the destruction of an American airliner, in retribution for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the American warship USS Vincennes in 1988.

A Palestinian terror cell had taken up the offer but after it ran into problems the Libyans stepped in to help and al-Megrahi helped get the bomb on to the fatal flight, he believed.

“It was state-sponsored terrorism,” Mr MacAskill said, adding: “It was a coalition of the willing.”

The real truth about the Lockerbie tragedy might never be known, putting it on the same level as other great historical events which had aroused conspiracy theories over the years, he suggested.

[The report of the Book Festival event in The Telegraph reads in part:]

Although the Scottish Government had the final say over whether Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was released, Kenny MacAskill likened its involvement to "flotsam and jetsam, the same as the bags that fell upon the poor town of Lockerbie and the people there".
The former Scottish Justice Minister claimed President Obama and Hillary Clinton, his then Secretary of State, had been secretly “conniving” to have the bomber released despite their public condemnations of his decision.
He made the outspoken comments at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as he discussed his book The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search For Justice. (...)
Mr MacAskill refused an application from the bomber to release him under a prisoner transfer agreement signed between the UK and Libya, and which has since been linked to a multi-million pound oil deal with BP.
However, he set Britain’s worst mass murderer free in August 2009 on compassionate grounds, on the basis he had prostate cancer and a maximum of three months to live. (...)
But Mr Macaskill accused British and American politicians of hypocisy for criticising his decision while working to secure deals with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to further commercial interests.
He said: "We got nothing out of it. The Scottish Government and indeed Scotland got a black spot, not simply the bomb that landed and devastated the town of Lockerbie.
"We had no control and little influence, we knew things were happening, but you have got to remember it suited people to be able to put the blame on somebody and say it was Scotland.
"Because Obama, Clinton and Straw, all of them came out with it and said we don't agree with it, and they had been conniving and working for it.” Mr MacAskill added: "We took the rap for Lockerbie but there were huge international deals going on that were commercial and were security.”

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