[What follows is the text of an article published on this date in 2009 in Lockerbie’s local weekly newspaper The Annandale Herald:]
Lockerbie mystery will remain
“I think Megrahi’s name will be cleared. Beyond that I doubt if we will ever now find out who or what actually caused the destruction of Pan Am 103.”
These are the words of Lockerbie-born retired law Professor Robert Black who has spoken exclusively to DNG Media’s Carol Hogarth in the lead up to the start of the Lockerbie bomber’s second appeal hearing later this month.
Mr Black, who now splits his time between homes in Edinburgh and South Africa, is credited as one of the architects of the original Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. He is a founder member of the Justice for Megrahi campaign, set up after the terminally ill Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was refused bail last year.
Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of planting the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, killing 270 people, including eleven Lockerbie residents.
Q. Can you explain your family connection with Lockerbie?
A. I was born at Peatford, on the outskirts of the town (near the Queen’s Hotel) in June 1947. My father, Jim, was a plumber, working then for Drummond’s and later for Carruthers & Green. When I was five we moved to Hillview Street, where my parents lived until they died in the 1990s. I attended Lockerbie Academy from 1952 to 1961 (then Dumfries Academy from 1961 to 1964). For a number of years my mother, Jean, ran the small grocer’s shop (now closed) in Hillview Street. My father’s brother was the local molecatcher (as their father had been) and his son, my cousin, still carries on the business.
Q. How do you remember the town from your youth?
A. The town was a good place to grow up in. It was quiet and safe. Children could play unsupervised in the streets, in the parks, in the woods and on the golf course. I remember swimming in the Annan and the Dryfe. I remember the people all knowing each other and being friendly and open. I suppose there must have been some conflict and crime, but that never impinged on my consciousness as a child.
Q. Where were you and what were you doing when Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the town in December 1988?
A. The first news of the Lockerbie disaster came to me through BBC radio. I was at my home in Edinburgh (I had become Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University in January 1981) preparing my evening meal with, as usual, my wireless tuned to Radio Four. I immediately tried to telephone my mother, but all the lines were down and I could not get through. Shortly after 8pm a university colleague phoned me. She said television programmes had been interrupted to announce that a plane had crashed on Lockerbie. Knowing I did not have a television set (and twenty years later I still don’t) she assumed I would not have received the news. As the gravity of the incident became clearer, so my concern for the safety of my mother and father increased. However, at around 8.15, I received a phone call from my niece, at that time a nurse in a hospital in Glasgow. It transpired she had actually been on the phone to my mother when the plane came down and, because the line was not cut until a few minutes thereafter, was able to confirm that her grandmother and grandfather had not been killed or injured. At the actual moment of impact, my father had been outside the house, posting a letter in the pillar box just across the road. He rushed to the alleyway between the houses and sheltered there while small items of debris rained down on the street.
Q. You are credited with being one of the “architects” of the first trial at Camp Zeist. What was your involvement at that time?
A. My personal involvement in the aftermath of the destruction of Pan Am 103 began in early 1993. I was approached by representatives of a group of British businessmen whose desire to participate in major engineering works in Libya was being impeded by the UN sanctions that had been imposed on Libya in an attempt to compel the surrender for trial in Scotland or the United States of America of their two accused citizens. They asked if I would be prepared to provide independent advice to Libya with a view (it was hoped) to persuading them their citizens would obtain a fair trial if they were to surrender to the Scottish authorities. I submitted material setting out the essentials of Scottish solemn criminal procedure and the various protections embodied in it for accused persons. It was indicated to me that the Libyan government was satisfied regarding the fairness of a criminal trial in Scotland but, since Libyan law prevented the extradition of nationals for trial overseas, the ultimate decision would have to be one taken voluntarily by the accused persons themselves.
For this purpose a meeting was convened in Tripoli in October 1993 of the international team of lawyers appointed to represent the accused. I am able personally to testify to how much of a surprise and embarrassment it was to the Libyan government when the outcome of the meeting of the defence team was an announcement that the accused were not prepared to surrender themselves for trial in Scotland. At a private meeting I had in Tripoli a day later it was explained to me the primary reason for the unwillingness of the accused to stand trial in Scotland was their belief that, because of unprecedented pre-trial publicity over the years, a Scottish jury could not possibly bring to their consideration of the evidence the impartiality and open-mindedness accused persons are entitled to expect and that a fair trial demands.
I returned to Tripoli and in 1994 and presented a detailed proposal that a trial be held outside Scotland, ideally in the Netherlands, in which the governing law and procedure would be that followed in Scottish criminal trials on indictment but with the jury of 15 persons replaced by a panel of judges. In a letter to me it was stated the suspects would voluntarily surrender themselves for trial before a tribunal so constituted. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Libya stated his government approved of the proposal. I submitted the relevant documents to the Foreign Office in London and the Crown Office in Edinburgh. Their immediate response was that this scheme was impossible, impracticable and inherently undesirable, with the clear implication that I had taken leave of what few senses nature had endowed me with. However, from about late July 1998, following interventions supporting my “neutral venue” scheme from, amongst others, President Nelson Mandela, there began to be leaks from UK government sources to the effect that a policy change over Lockerbie was imminent; and on 24 August 1998 the governments of the United Kingdom and United States announced they had reversed their stance on the matter of a “neutral venue” trial. And after a number pitfalls were avoided, the suspects surrendered themselves for trial.
Q. What is your view of the legal process involving the case since then?
A. The outcome of the trial was a real shock. Since the day of the verdict I have consistently maintained the conviction of Abdelbaset Megrahi was contrary to the weight of the evidence and that the finding of guilt against him was a conclusion no reasonable tribunal could have reached on that evidence. I am glad to say my view appears to be shared by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, for this is one of the grounds on which it referred Megrahi’s case back to the High Court for a further appeal. As someone who has practised, taught and (as a part-time judge) administered the criminal law of Scotland for 35 years, I can confidently say that, in my opinion, the conviction of Megrahi is the worst and most blatant miscarriage of justice to have occurred in Scotland for a hundred years.
Q. What led to the formation of the Justice for Megrahi campaign?
A. What precipitated the establishment of the campaign was the refusal by the High Court to release Megrahi on bail pending his appeal, even though advanced and incurable prostate cancer had been diagnosed. The campaign is intended to create a climate of opinion in which his release on bail by the court, or his compassionate release by the Scottish Government, can be achieved so he can spend what time remains to him with his family at their house in Newton Mearns.
Q. What is your experience of meeting and working with victims’ families?
A. One of the great privileges accorded to me through my involvement in the Lockerbie case has been meeting, and forming friendships with, relatives of individuals killed aboard Pan Am 103: delightful people like Jim and Jane Swire, John and Lisa Mosey and Marina Larracoechea. My contacts with other relatives, particularly some American ones, have been less pleasurable. For some of them, anyone who expresses anything less than absolutely uncritical acceptance of the trial verdict and of Libyan culpability is a rogue and a scoundrel. How they will cope with the quashing of Megrahi’s conviction (which I believe to be inevitable if the current appeal goes the full distance) I hesitate to think.
Q. Do you have contact with Megrahi and can you give us an idea of the current state of his health?
A. I have had no direct contact with Megrahi since I visited him in Greenock Prison some considerable time before his prostate cancer was diagnosed. From recent interviews that his wife, Aisha, has given, it seems his condition is deteriorating.
Q. The second appeal hearing is due to start at the end of April. What are your expectations of that?
A. If the appeal goes the full distance, I have no doubt whatsoever that Megrahi’s conviction will be quashed. But if his medical condition deteriorates dramatically, he may decide to apply for transfer back to Libya to die there in the bosom of his family. It is a condition of applying for prisoner transfer that there be no live legal proceedings in that prisoner’s case. This means in order to qualify, Megrahi would have to abandon his present appeal. I am cynical enough about Crown Office and Scottish Government Justice Department motives to believe this is the outcome these bodies devoutly wish to achieve. There are those — civil servants and others — whose careers and reputations have been built upon the Lockerbie conviction. For them, the ideal outcome is for the current appeal to be abandoned. If it proceeds the full distance, embarrassment (and perhaps worse) are inevitable.
Q. What is it about the Lockerbie case in general that has kept you so involved over the years?
A. The injustice of it. Abdelbaset Megrahi should never have been convicted. This is so obvious to anyone who looks at the evidence and at the trial court’s judgment that there must be something wrong with a system that has already taken more than eight years to reach a point where it might just be about to be rectified.
Q. Do you think there will ever be a satisfactory conclusion to the Lockerbie case?
A. I think Megrahi’s name will be cleared. I only hope he is alive to see it. Beyond that, I doubt if we will ever now find out who or what actually caused the destruction of Pan Am 103. The political (and indeed journalistic) will to investigate what truly happened seems to me to be lacking. And people like me and like those relatives who have never been convinced by the officially-approved explanation are growing old and tired. Clearing Megrahi is the best that we can hope to achieve, I’m afraid.