Saturday, 8 October 2016

Onus now on Scottish government to establish a judicial inquiry

[The letter from Benedict Birnberg that follows was published in The London Review of Books on this date in 2009:]

As a partner of Gareth Peirce until my retirement may I add a sequel to her penetrating analysis of the al-Megrahi case (LRB, 24 Sepember). First, to point out that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) after an investigation lasting over three years referred his conviction to the Scottish court of appeal in June 2007; its statement of referral extended to more than 800 pages with 13 volumes of appendices. It is that appeal which, as Gareth Peirce says, al-Megrahi abandoned before his release and repatriation to Libya, thus denying the court the opportunity to consider the case, even though the SCCRC stated in its press release: ‘based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court ... the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.’ Why did al-Megrahi withdraw his appeal? Was it because he was put under pressure to secure his release on compassionate grounds? Or was it voluntarily done because he lacked confidence in the impartiality of the court? Whatever the truth may be, the onus now rests on the Scottish government to establish a public judicial inquiry, so that the case so painstakingly prepared by the SCCRC does not go by default.

Second, to add to the suspicions Peirce’s article exposes, it needs to be said that the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s decision has unleashed a hysterical torrent of vilification, not least in the US where many of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims are convinced of al-Megrahi’s guilt. We have witnessed a campaign of denigration on which even Obama, Hillary Clinton and the late Edward Kennedy have bestowed their benediction. On this side of the Atlantic too the irrational commentators abound. The overwhelming weight of media comment has been hostile to al-Megrahi. On 3 September the Guardian carried a long article by Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and a prominent Scottish lawyer, headed ‘Megrahi’s return has been a sorry, cocked-up conspiracy’: it failed even to mention the SCCRC reference. Even pillars of the human rights establishment, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have shouted themselves hoarse: ‘We should be ashamed that this has happened’ (Guardian, 22 August) and ‘Megrahi should never have been freed: the result is a triumph for state terrorism and a worldwide boost for the death penalty’ (Independent, 2 September).

Yet, when al-Megrahi releases part of the SCCRC case on the internet, his declared aim being to clear his name and ostensibly to prove his innocence, pat comes the Scottish lord advocate (Scotland’s chief prosecutor) joining relatives of the victims convinced of his guilt to denounce him for his ‘media campaign’. Meanwhile pleas from those who, like Dr Jim Swire, believe justice has not been done and who, for the sake of the memory of the victims as much as al-Megrahi, wish there to be a genuine and far-reaching inquiry, fall on deaf ears.

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