Thursday, 8 June 2017

The prisoner transfer débâcle

[What follows is excerpted from a report published in The Guardian on this date in 2007:]

Scotland's justice secretary today labelled as "ludicrous" Westminster's claim that a prisoner exchange agreement with Libya did not cover the Lockerbie bomber.

Kenny MacAskill poured scorn on Downing Street's insistence that a memorandum of understanding signed last week during a trip by Tony Blair to Libya did not apply to Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, has protested to Tony Blair over the agreement, which he suggested could lead to the Lockerbie bomber being transferred from Scotland to his homeland.

The SNP leader made an emergency statement in the Holyrood parliament complaining that "at no stage" had he been made aware of a British-Libyan agreement on extradition and prisoner release before it was signed.

The agreement has sparked the first major row between the government and the minority SNP administration in Holyrood.

Mr MacAskill told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland that Westminster's handling of the affair was "at minimum, discourteous to the first minister and the Scottish parliament".

Mr MacAskill continued: "There's no mention of al-Megrahi [in the memorandum] but we have many people in our prisons ... but we have only one Libyan national in our prisons.

"So when we're talking about the transfer of Libyan prisoners they are not secreted in Barlinnie, Saughton, Perth or anywhere else.

"We have only one Libyan national in custody and when we talk about the transfer of prisoners, frankly it is ludicrous to suggest that we are talking in a context other than this major atrocity that was perpetrated on Scottish soil and which was dealt with by a Scottish court and with a sentence provided by Scottish judges." (...)

No 10 denied Megrahi's case was covered by the document, saying: "There is a legal process currently under way in Scotland reviewing this case which is not expected to conclude until later this summer.

"Given that, it is totally wrong to suggest the we have reached any agreement with the Libyan government in this case.

"The memorandum of understanding agreed with the Libyan government last week does not cover this case."

But Mr MacAskill rejected any suggestion that the agreement would only apply to the transfer of al-Qaida suspects.

He said: "We haven't been given clarification [by Downing Street].

"All we've been told is that a memorandum of understanding has been signed.

"Mr al-Megrahi is not specifically excluded. It refers to the transfer of prisoners so this is London's interpretation of it.

"I doubt it very much if it's the interpretation being placed upon it by the government of Libya."

The row comes in the middle of an examination of Megrahi's case by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The body will decide later this month whether to refer his conviction back to an appeal court.

Mr MacAskill said: "It [the memorandum] is undermining the fabric of the Scottish judicial system that has been independent long before the Scottish parliament was established.

David Mundell, the Tory MP whose Dumfriesshire constituency covers Lockerbie, said he was "appalled" by Mr Blair's handling of the matter.

"Not only has he ridden roughshod over Scotland's parliament and legal system, but his actions threaten to undermine a legal process which took years to put in place and was agreed with the United Nations and international community," he said.

[RB: Here is something previously written by me on this matter:]

It was on [29 May] 2007 that the “deal in the desert” was concluded between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi at a meeting in Sirte. This was embodied in a “memorandum of understanding” that provided, amongst other things, for a prisoner transfer agreement to be drawn up. In later years UK Government ministers, particularly Justice Secretary Jack Straw, sought to argue either (i) that the prisoner transfer element of the deal was not intended to apply to Abdelbaset Megrahi or (ii) that if it was intended to cover him, all parties appreciated that the decision on transfer would be one for the Scottish Government not the UK Government. Here is what I wrote about that on this blog:

According to Jack Straw "the Libyans understood that the discretion in respect of any PTA application rested with the Scottish Executive." This is not so. In meetings that I had with Libyan officials at the highest level shortly after the "deal in the desert" it was abundantly clear that the Libyans believed that the UK Government could order the transfer of Mr Megrahi and that they were prepared to do so. When I told them that the relevant powers rested with the Scottish -- not the UK -- Government, they simply did not believe me. When they eventually realised that I had been correct, their anger and disgust with the UK Government was palpable. As I have said elsewhere:

"The memorandum of understanding regarding prisoner transfer that Tony Blair entered into in the course of the "deal in the desert" in May 2007, and which paved the way for the formal prisoner transfer agreement, was intended by both sides to lead to the rapid return of Mr Megrahi to his homeland. This was the clear understanding of Libyan officials involved in the negotiations and to whom I have spoken.

"It was only after the memorandum of understanding was concluded that [it belatedly sunk in] that the decision on repatriation of this particular prisoner was a matter not for Westminster and Whitehall but for the devolved Scottish Government in Edinburgh, and that government had just come into the hands of the Scottish National Party and so could no longer be expected supinely to follow the UK Labour Government's wishes. That was when the understanding between the UK Government and the Libyan Government started to unravel, to the considerable annoyance and distress of the Libyans, who had been led to believe that repatriation under the PTA was only months away.

“Among the Libyan officials with whom I discussed this matter at the time were Abdulati al-Obeidi, Moussa Koussa and Abdel Rahman Shalgam.”

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