Tuesday, 11 October 2016

First preliminary hearing in second Megrahi appeal

[What follows is excerpted from a report published on this date in 2007 on the BBC News website on the first procedural hearing in the appeal allowed to Megrahi by the SCCRC:]

Lawyers for the man jailed for the Lockerbie bombing have asked the Crown to hand over documents which they said could help overturn his conviction.

A court was told their non-disclosure could indicate that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, 55, was the victim of a "miscarriage of justice".

The Libyan's legal team said they needed the papers to prepare an appeal.

They were granted an extension until 21 December - the 19th anniversary of the disaster in which 270 people in 1988.

The hour-long hearing - which Megrahi did not attend - was the first time the case has come to court since he was granted the right to a second appeal earlier this year.

The full appeal - before a panel of five judges - is likely to be heard next year.

Speaking at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was among the 270 who died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, described it as "a very ominous date".

"We are getting near the 19th anniversary of the murder of our loved ones," he said.

Mr Swire said he was pleased that Scotland's top judge, Lord Justice General Lord Hamilton, seemed to want to speed things up as much as possible. [RB: The hope that progress would be swift soon turned out to be forlorn.]

However, he added that it would be wrong to put too much pressure on the defence.

Alongside the appeal for documents, Defence QC Margaret Scott said a new witness could discredit Maltese shop keeper Tony Gauci whose evidence was crucial in convicting Megrahi at a special court in the Netherlands in 2001.

Ms Scott also said defence forensic experts were working on reports to counter other evidence led at the trial.

The hour-long hearing followed recent speculation that US security services were blocking the handover of potentially crucial information about the timer which detonated the bomb on Pan Am flight 103.

However, Lord Hamilton, sitting with Lords Kingarth and Eassie, heard that the Americans were not involved.

"The documents don't come from that government or any of its agencies," said advocate depute Ronald Clancy QC, for the Crown.

He told the court: "The documents in question were passed to the UK Government on the basis that they were regarded as being confidential by the authorities that passed them over.

"That being so, the Crown has always taken the position that, if possible, confidentiality should always be respected."

Mr Clancy added: "The Crown has been actively pursuing the matter but today it remains unresolved."

Requests had been made to allow the Crown to hand over the documents and it was possible this might happen without the appeal judges having to rule on the issue, the court heard.

Mr Swire said that if the secret documents did not come from the US then it was "pure speculation" which government they belonged to. [RB: Years later it emerged that the the government in question was that of Jordan.]

In 2002, five judges heard an appeal against Megrahi's conviction but decided that the guilty verdict should stand.

[RB: My own report on the procedural hearing reads as follows:]

The hearing at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh this morning lasted just under one hour. The judges were the Lord Justice General (Lord Hamilton), Lord Kingarth and Lord Eassie. (For brief biographies, see http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/session/judges.asp.) Mr Megrahi was represented by a team headed by Maggie Scott QC and the Crown by a team headed by Ronnie Clancy QC. For technical reasons of no particular interest in the overall scheme of the Lockerbie case, the Advocate General for Scotland was also represented; as also was the Chief Constable of Dumfries and Galloway (because copies of the documents that Megrahi's lawyers are seeking to have disclosed to them are in that police force's possession).

The principal subject of debate was Megrahi's application to have disclosed a document relating to timers that is in the possession of the Crown and that was seen by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, and the non-disclosure of which to the defence was one of the Commission's reasons for holding that a miscarriage of justice might have occurred. The only major surprise in the hearing was the Crown's revelation that the foreign country from which the document in question emanated was not the United States of America. The general assumption amongst commentators (myself included) had been that the source of the document was the CIA or the FBI. Mr Clancy indicated that the Crown was seeking the consent of the foreign country in question for the release of the document to the appellant's legal team He asked for, and was granted, a six week period to lodge written answers to Megrahi's application for an order for the document to be disclosed. His hope was that within that period the foreign country would agree to its release and that the court would not therefore have to consider whether to make a formal ruling on the matter.

The other issue ventilated at the hearing was the timetable for Megrahi's legal team to lodge his Grounds of Appeal (as distinct from the "outline of proposed grounds of appeal" that had already been provided to the court). Ms Scott indicated that a vast amount of new material had become available to Megrahi's team from the SCCRC and also from the Maltese authorities and that this had to be considered and assessed before grounds of appeal could be finalised. The court ordered that the Grounds of Appeal be lodged before the end of the legal term on 21 December 2007, but on the understanding that additions and amendments might be required thereafter. A separate set of grounds of appeal on the issue of inadequate representation by Megrahi's original legal team was ordered to be lodged in advance, so that the lawyers criticised in them should have the opportunity of commenting on the allegations without further delay to the proceedings as a whole.

The appeal proceedings will be held in Edinburgh, but Ms Scott indicated concerns about arrangements for Mr Megrahi's repatriation to Libya in the event of his release. It is to be expected that satisfactory arrangements will be evolved, perhaps involving the United Nations (as happened in respect of Mr Fhima, the co-accused who was acquitted at the original trial).

The public benches of the courtroom were by no means full, though a number of Lockerbie relatives did attend, along with a substantial contingent of representatives of the media. The most common complaint from those attending was the difficulty in hearing what was being said. The acoustics were appalling and this was not helped by the tendency of the speaking participants (with the honourable exceptions of Ms Scott and Mr Clancy) to whisper or mumble.

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