Wednesday, 12 October 2016

“No pressure from Westminster”

[On this date in 2009 the Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, made a statement in the House of Commons about the UK Government’s rôle in the events that led up to the repatriation of Megrahi. It reads in part:]

In May 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair made his second visit to Libya. His summit with Colonel Gaddafi at Sirte covered the full range of our interests with Libya. Mr. Blair signed a defence accord and witnessed the public signature of a major BP exploration contract. Also agreed was a memorandum of understanding on negotiations for a judicial co-operation package, including a prisoner transfer agreement and agreements on mutual legal assistance, extradition, and civil and commercial law.

The UK had a model agreement, based on Council of Europe arrangements, that was the starting point for negotiation on our prisoner transfer agreements with any country and that provided the starting point for negotiations with the Libyans. Four points are relevant. First, a PTA provides for prisoner transfer, not prisoner release. Secondly, it provides a framework for transfer, not a right to transfer. Thirdly, a PTA cannot be used when appeals, including by the prosecuting authority, are outstanding, as in this case. Fourthly, Ministers in the sentencing jurisdiction-in this case Scotland-have an absolute right to veto any transfer.

This standard draft had no provision for any carve-out for any named prisoner. However, the Scottish Executive made strong representations for us to seek to alter the standard PTA so as specifically to exclude Mr. Megrahi. The UK negotiation team, led by the Ministry of Justice, sought in good faith to achieve this goal.

The Libyans insisted that the only PTA that they would sign was a PTA without any exclusions. So the Government had a clear choice. We could agree to a standard PTA with no exclusions, retaining for Scottish Ministers an absolute veto over any request for prisoner transfer in the case of Megrahi-a veto which they used in August this year-or we could have ended the negotiations to prevent an application for prisoner transfer. This would have set back our wider national and commercial interests that flowed from normalised relations, as the Justice Secretary has made clear. Since the PTA involved no prejudice to the rights of the Scottish Executive, nor pressure on the Scottish Executive, the Government decided it was right to go ahead. The PTA finally took effect in April 2009.

In September 2008, a new factor came into play. Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The Libyans became increasingly concerned at the prospect of Mr. Megrahi dying in a Scottish prison. They communicated this to the Government and to the Scottish Executive. It was repeatedly made clear in reply, including in the Prime Minister's meeting with Colonel Gaddafi on 10 July this year, that the decision on Mr. Megrahi's fate was exclusively for Scottish Ministers and the Scottish judicial system.

Notwithstanding that any decision on release was for Scottish Ministers and the Scottish judicial system, the UK Government had a responsibility to consider the consequences of any Scottish decision. We assessed that although the decision was not one for the UK Government, British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged-perhaps badly-if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than in Libya. Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK Government and that as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi's death in Scottish custody.

In Scotland, compassionate release generally comes into play in the last three months of a prisoner's life. Scottish Justice Secretary MacAskill has set out the process by which he arrived at his decision in August this year to refuse the PTA transfer but to grant Megrahi compassionate release. He also set out the grounds on which he did so. As the Scottish Justice Secretary repeatedly stated in his announcement, this was a decision for him and him alone to take. The Government were clear that any attempt by us to pressure the Scottish Executive would have been wrong. At the press conference announcing his decision, the Scottish Justice Secretary confirmed that there was "no pressure from Westminster".

[RB: The full statement and the debate which followed can be read here.]

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