Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Not a very satisfactory or a convincing showing

[What follows is a review by Brigadier Allan Alstead on the Edinburgh Guide website of the Kenny MacAskill event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:]

For some people their careers are defined by a single issue, so said Ruth Wishart who was chairing the session with Kenny MacAskill, the former Scottish Justice Secretary, who was discussing his book, The Lockerbie Bombing - The Search for Justice. For MacAskill it was possibly the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi who was the only man ever convicted of the bombing of the PanAm flight 103. He was released by MacAskill on compassionate grounds as al-Megrahi was suffering from terminal postate cancer. The flight exploded above the town of Lockerbie killing all two hundred and seventy passengers and crew together with eleven people on the ground.
But this was no ordinary event as one questioner said, MacAskill by his rapid fire speech and by his body language seemed to imply that he was not confident about the book. The questioner asked if the whole aim of the book was to show that 'poor little Scotland was helpless to all that was going on' and it was only the big commercial interests and the international powers that called the tune on Lockerbie and the release of al-Megrahi.
MacAskill replied that it was quite clearly an international affair. He said that Colonel Gaddafi was the man to blame and he maintained that this had been mentioned several times by members of the Libyan Government and had never been refuted. MacAskill claimed that it was a big international stitch-up with Scotland being left to "carry the can" for everyone.
He talked about President Obama controlling all this with a lot of American involvement, particularly with the decisions about Libyan oil and their other resources. He also said that Clinton and Jack Straw for the British Government were deeply involved with the decisions that were taken to release al-Megrahi and it all therefore came back to international politics and where Scotland got nothing from the release at all.
MacAskill also talked about the doubts that surrounded al-Megrahi and buying clothes in Malta which was one of the main points in the trial. If, as the MacAskill book says, “clothes in the suitcase that carried the bomb were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi", then he certainly was not involved. It raises a question mark over the verdict that was reached at the trial. If the clothes were not bought at Gauci's shop, as MacAskill claims - although the actual evidence seems sketchy - then al-Megrahi should not have been convicted.
If MacAskill has evidence that was not disclosed at the trial than this should be handed to the police forthwith. Both the book and MacAskill in questioning left the audience wondering what the evidence was and where it was?
The audience were left with some doubts about why the book was written - was it an opportunity for MacAskill to clear his name and simply give his own version of events? Or did MacAskill see this as an opportunity to set matters right? In which case any evidence should have been passed to the authorities.
In his book, MacAskill maintains that the lawyers and the police all acted in good faith and that they did what they could with the evidence available to them. That everyone behaved correctly is not disputed, but it does seem that MacAskill is trying to exonerate the Scottish police from any blame. One accepts that, as MacAskill said it is important to, "cut some slack" to those who are trying their best to produce evidence under difficult circumstances.
All in all this was not a very satisfactory or a convincing showing by Kenny MacAskill who I have heard speak much more convincingly on other occasions.

The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice (May 2016) by Kenny MacAskill is published by Biteback Publishing.


  1. Having attended the event I agree with this summary. However I was disappointed none of the key players on the Justice for Megrahi (if I have the campaign group name correct) committee were present to challenge Kenny

    1. Um, I was there. I asked him how he could apparently tell us what Operation Sandwood was going to conclude when their report hasn't yet been submitted to the Crown Office. I pointed out that he was up a gum tree with his assertion that evidence in the possession of the German police proved the bomb had passed through Frankfurt.

      I was only going to get one question. What would you rather I had asked?

  2. Once again MacAskill is all over the place. The difficulty is knowing where to start!

    First off, Libya did not admit responsibility for Lockerbie and that charge was refuted many times. Libya caved in only because sanctions imposed on that country were causing severe hardship to its people. Libya paid compensation only to have those sanctions lifted and to gain access, once more, to things, basic things, like medicines. It did not ever admit responsibility for the Lockerbie atrocity. Saif Gaddafi explained this at the time and has done so again since.

    Second, Mr MacAskill declared, repeatedly, that the verdict in this case was sound. One of those occasions was on the day he announced Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds. He said, categorically, that judges had reached the right verdict. (What he did not refer to once was the fact that the SCCRC had found six grounds to challenge that conviction. Indeed, he behaved as if the second appeal (which MacAskill himself was instrumental in getting rid of) had never existed.)

    Third, Lockerbie was an "international affair" only in the sense that this was a US flight that was brought down over Scottish airspace. Both Salmond and MacAskill, however, were vocal in warning all other parties that it was a crime committed in Scotland and tried in Scotland and that only Scottish authorities had the right to decide what would happen to Megrahi. (Salmond in particular clashed with Blair over the matter and warned him to keep his nose out of Scottish business.) So for MacAskill to claim now that Scotland was somehow powerless, that the UK government and the US government were involved in the decision to release Megrahi is ridiculous. (We do know that the Westminster government wanted him released for their own selfish reasons - trade deals with Libya - but the decision itself was for Scotland to make, not the UK government or the US authorities.)

    Fourth, there was a stitch up all right but it was MacAskill who stitched justice up through his own appalling conduct as Justice Minister in coercing a very sick man to drop his appeal by threatening to stop his return home unless he did so.

    Fifth, how obscene is it for any Scottish politician to complain about the fact that Scotland "got nothing out of the release". MacAskill's priority should have been to see that second appeal through and get to the bottom of the murder of nearly three hundred people! The SCCRC doesn't do conspiracy theories and its decision to refer this case back to the appeal court was made on the basis of evidence and on clear grounds that the conviction was possibly unsafe. That MacAskill got rid of that appeal and therefore ensured the conviction could not be tested says that justice was not his priority. Far from it.

    Sixth, the writer says "That everyone behaved correctly is not disputed". I'd beg to differ. The "misbehaviour" goes back some decades now and includes the decision of a number of judges to reach a verdict that wasn't supported by the evidence put before them. MacAskill himself behaved anything but correctly. He denied a man the right to have his appeal heard, he played dirty filthy politics with a tragedy and denied the dead justice. And then, incredibly, he wrote a book clearly intending to benefit financially from all of it.

  3. "He said that Colonel Gaddafi was the man to blame and he maintained that this had been mentioned several times by members of the Libyan Government and had never been refuted."

    "All in all this was not a very satisfactory or a convincing showing by Kenny MacAskill..."

    No. Assuming the correctness of the review: if you say things like this you must have a poor case. Politicians are, notoriously, just about the worst source of truth you can get, McAskill himself being an excellent example.

    But that loose statement made by politicians in a country far away "has never been refuted" is just about as worthless as it gets.

    The famous statement "Megrahi didn't buy the clothes, but was involved anyway" is just hilarious, or scary, showing what leaders our democracy produces.

    Seeing the quality of the people we elect to the most powerful positions on the planet, and the stream of ongoing aggression towards robable nations I am no longer a believer in any superiority of democracy as the least-bad option.

    It is just a matter of fooling enough of the people enough of the time.

  4. MacAskill is very efficiently digging his own political grave. That seems now to be all he has left to do. But, if he doesn't complete the exercise himself, Police Scotland may well help him to finish it when Operation Sandwood is published.

    1. He has retired from politics. He was anything but flavour of the month at the 2014 SNP conference and he was the only member of the cabinet to get the boot when Sturgeon took over from Salmond as FM. And not before time, frankly.

      He didn't stand at the 2016 Scottish election. He's only 58 (he looks older in my opinion) but I would imagine he has amassed a perfectly respectable retirement portfolio by now and is sitting pretty. So really, he can say what he likes without fear of consequences.

      He announced (spontaneously, not in response to a question) that he had information that Sandwood (he kept calling it “Sandbank” or something like that) was going to report that the bomb didn't originate at Heathrow and in fact came from Malta. Someone asked him about the evidence for that and he said it was all in the possession of the German police. He then launched into a speculative rant about airline security in general and how he'd been round the world by air since he retired and he'd never been asked to get off a plane to identify his luggage. He said he reckoned that if the count was close enough, nobody bothered. He also said it was shown in court that at Luqa (he pronounced it "Luka" rather than the correct "Luha") they counted in fives so a count of one out wouldn't have been actioned. He said Fhimah put the bomb on the plane.

      Where do you start with that lot? Ruth asked him if he’s spoken to the Sandwood detectives and he said yes, as a result of JFM telling Sandwood they should interview him about passages in his book. He was confident they were gearing up to report that there was nothing in the Heathrow allegations and “the break-in didn’t happen”. Well I’ve spoken to the Sandwood detectives on numerous occasions and their reticence about what they’re going to conclude is exemplary. Not only that, they don’t discuss aspects of the investigation that aren’t relevant to the witness’s evidence. Kenny’s evidence would have been about the clothes purchase, not the Heathrow introduction. I don’t think they would have talked to him about the Heathrow evidence at all.

      I was the one who told him that the Frankfurt evidence was incomplete and didn’t show anything of the sort. I told him that the official German report into the baggage records had concluded that there was no evidence the Lockerbie bomb had passed through Frankfurt. He just pasted a sceptical look on his face. Others spoke about having to get off planes and identify their luggage, including one person to whom that had happened at Luqa. He seemed entirely unaware that the double-counting done at Luqa was unique to that airport and not a normal procedure worldwide.

      And of course there’s no evidence at all that Fhimah was even at the airport that morning.

      What nobody has ever been able to explain to me is how, given what we know about the Luqa security procedures, an extra suitcase could have been put on that plane without any trace at all being left in the records after the event. Cannistraro (and indeed the prosecution) had to resort to the assertion that the entirety of the records were falsified and almost everyone at Luqa (including Wilfred Borg) were lying their heads off. This would have required an enormous conspiracy involving possibly dozens of ordinary airport personnel (many of them devout Catholics with no great love for Libyans) and it’s inconceivable that such a thing would have gone entirely undetected by now. Someone would have squealed.

      But none of this matters to Kenny, or even impinges on his consciousness. He has his superficial sound-bites and he’s sure he’s right and that’s OK then.

    2. Having seen the evidence (as have you, David, and I mean including those photos from the Netherlands I showed you at Christmas), I have huge difficulty getting my brain round the suggestion that Sandwood could conclude that the Bedford case wasn’t the bomb. My feeling is that the only way to preserve the establishment’s blushes is for them to conclude that there’s no reasonable case for misconduct or criminal negligence against any of the investigators who missed or avoided that evidence, or at least that it wouldn’t be in the public interest to prosecute anyone. That last could be hard to argue with considering that the people involved are long retired and mostly in their seventies by now.

      If that were to be the substance of their report, then the Crown Office could bury the detail and simply trumpet that Sandwood had found the JFM allegations against these fine upstanding citizens to be unfounded. We’d be left not knowing what the report actually said about the route of the bomb or the Bedford suitcase. However, with MacAskill having said what he said in public, I wonder if that might give some leverage to ferreting out the actual conclusion? Challenge the Crown Office to publish the report to confirm what Mr. MacAskill claimed, or something like that. I don’t know.

      After the event, at the book signing, I coughed up £20 I won’t get back for his abysmal book and got it autographed. I said, I’ve had more than a few wee chats with Operation Sandwood myself, and one thing I know is that they don’t give much away. We parted with both of us saying, we’ll see. I hope we do see, and it isn’t buried.

      I don’t think I’ve ever been as sure of anything in my life as I am that that bomb was in the case Bedford saw in the container at quarter to five.

  5. As you know, I'm with you all the way as regards the evidence relating to the bomb being introduced in London. There is no evidence whatsoever of any alternative. You haven't received sufficient recognition for your analysis and conclusion. However I may have a little more faith that the Sandwood team will exhibit integrity in their report. They will sleep better if they do. If the report isn't published, there can be little justification for the effort put into its production. It would leave Scottish Justice up in the clouds and be a green light for the Crown Office to do just as it pleases regardless of its intended purpose and the absolute requirement for impartiality. I cannot get round the Lord Advocate's scandalous, ill-judged proclamations when the allegations were made, although he was being true to the seemingly standard behaviour of some at least of his predecessors in stepping well out of line. Let us hope that aspect of this matter is also addressed in the report.

  6. I don't care about recognition FOR my analysis, what I'm concerned about is the lack of recognition of the analysis itself. Try as I might, it doesn't seem to be picked up in the general narrative of the case.

    I'm not doing this for partisan reasons, I'm doing it because it's clear to me that the evidence overwhelmingly points in one direction, to the point of beyond reasonable doubt. (That's not to say you can't dream up unreasonable doubt, but that's not the function of either the police or the justice system.) If I had found the evidence to demonstrate the opposite, that the Bedford case wasn't the bomb or was unlikely to have been the bomb, I'd have said so.

    I'm tired of being sneered at and patronised and called a conspiracy theorist by people who haven't and apparently cannot point to a single flaw in my reasoning or conclusions. I'm tired of people bringing up the grassy knoll and 9/ll as some sort of discrediting tactics. I'm perfectly comfortable that LHO killed JFK because he was a discontented nutcase. I'm quite convinced a group of Saudi jihadists hijacked four planes and caused 9/ll. And all the rest of it. That's what the evidence shows. Oh yes and Willie MacRae almost certainly committed suicide and Princess Diana was killed in a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver.

    But a succession of sneering establishment darlings is allowed to get up in public and rubbish my work as if it's on a par with mad 9/11 trutherism or the grassy knoll. And the media refuse to look into it any more closely (with the exeption of one Private Eye journalist whose lead isn't followed by the paper as a whole, and one writer for the Big Issue Ireland whose article wasn't even printed by Big Issue Scotland).

    I have every reason to believe the Sandwood team are intelligent and diligent, and that's all anyone needs to see the truth. I just get spooked when people like MacAskill come out with these pronouncements. We can only hope the Sandwood people aren't nobbled in some way.

  7. "We can only hope the Sandwood people aren't nobbled in some way."
    There is one four-letter word I'd like to throw at those gentlemen:

  8. Good question. Kenny said another six months, and it’s not impossible that the Sandwood guys did tell him that - they don’t mind talking about time-scales. I’ve had several emails from a senior detective saying that he wasn’t apologising for taking longer than anticipated because after all this time the most important thing is to do a thorough job. And I can hardly take issue with that. But the extent and number of the delays is getting remarkable, and I do wonder about the behind-the-scenes politicking.

    Bear in mind that their remit isn’t simply to figure out whether the Bedford case was the bomb or whether PT/35b was part of a Mebo timer or whether Megrahi bought the clothes from Tony Gauci. It’s to decide whether there was misconduct involved in the investigation and/or trial in these specific areas (plus the Giaka cables one). I have always taken the view that delays tend to argue in our favour.

    The initial pre-Sandwood investigation into our allegations was by Patrick Shearer who was unquestionably prejudiced. He was determined to find in favour of the official version and he initially anticipated wrapping it all up in a few months. But that didn’t happen and he retired without making any report. So far so good. In due course, enter Sandwood.

    Now I believe a genuinely open mind is a rare thing. I don’t teach my students to have no opinions about where an investigation might go. Everyone has ideas. Indeed, we’re taught to make a preliminary or differential diagnosis and seek to confirm or deny that. It would be difficult to work in any other way. I wouldn’t criticise the Sandwood team for having a preliminary impression that they were going to find no actual criminal case against anyone involved that it would be in the public interest to prosecute. So the longer they take the more I wonder if they’re having to revise and reconsider that.

    In particular, we have been told a couple of times that their final report was in preparation, indeed even close to submission. Last September when I passed on the information about the Dutch forensic investigation I genuinely worried that I was a bit late getting it in, and was relieved to realise that I wasn’t. And then Kenny’s book came along and there was another reason to hold back for more information.

    But the length of time is getting a bit bizarre. I find it difficult to conclude other than that the investigation is having to re-think its original conclusions. Otherwise surely it would be relatively straightforward to add in new material while leaving the main thrust of the argument pretty much as it was. All this leads me to speculate that they may actually be going to recommend prosecutions, or at least thinking about it. Which goes against my natural pessimism that they wouldn’t do that.

    I honestly don’t know. Sometimes nothing would surprise me, though I can’t see how they can fail to conclude that the Bedford case was certainly or almost certainly the bomb.

    I also wonder about the relationship between Sandwood and the Crown Office’s own investigation. If Sandwood think the Bedford case was the bomb, would they tell the other investigation to assist them in not making bloody fools of themselves? Or would they remain hermetically sealed? Is someone simply trying to delay the Sandwood report to postpone the evil hour, even maybe for long enough that they personally are out of the firing line.

    Every time I try to think this through my brain turns to mashed potato.