Monday, 31 August 2009

Compassion, conviction and lingering doubt

[This is the headline over a column in today's edition of The Guardian by lawyer, legal commentator, broadcaster and columnist, Marcel Berlins. It reads as follows.]

What if Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was innocent of the Lockerbie bombing? The furore over his release has concentrated on two issues: whether or not he deserved to be freed on compassionate grounds – the reason given by the Scottish justice secretary – and whether, behind the scenes, lurked the real motive for granting his freedom, which was all about oil and Britain's trading relationship with Libya.

Megrahi's return to Libya seemed conveniently to have sidelined another potentially embarrassing question: was he the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Was the decision to free him at least partly based on the Scottish desire to avoid having that question answered? Of course, no one connected with the decision, whether in Scotland, Whitehall or Downing Street, could admit, or even hint, that guilt or innocence was a factor. Officially, he was a properly convicted prisoner, no question.

It is not just Megrahi himself insisting on his innocence. For many years, the case has induced unease in the Scottish legal world. Evidence has emerged that appears to cast some doubt on the verdict. No one is saying the material absolutely proves Megrahi's innocence, but it has been enough to raise the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Jim Swire, the father of one of the Lockerbie victims, who led the campaign of bereaved British relatives to discover the truth about the tragedy, now believes that an injustice occurred – so do many families of British victims (though this doubt is not shared by families on the American side).

Robert Black QC, one of Scotland's most eminent advocates, who has studied the case, is of the same view. More importantly, in 2007, the independent Scottish criminal cases review commission (SCCRC) referred the Megrahi case to the Scottish appeal court, finding sufficient grounds to suggest a miscarriage. The court would not have been obliged to grant the appeal, but it has usually done so on previous SCCRC referrals. The court was due to hear the appeal later this year, but Megrahi formally withdrew it during the flurry of activity leading to his release.

His lawyer has made it clear that he did so because it was felt that continuing the appeal – which would have gone on after his death – might have prejudiced his chances of being sent home. In the last few days Megrahi himself has reiterated his claim to innocence.

If he was wrongly convicted, all sorts of new questions arise, not least who was the real bomber and whether Libya was the instigator of the attack. It is probably too late to uncover the whole truth, but should we not try? If he didn't do it, there would at least be a sort of vindication of the decision to release him, even if for the wrong reasons.

Is there any way still open to consider the evidence which might have overturned Megrahi's conviction? His Scottish lawyer says he will make the dossier public. But who would evaluate it? It would not be satisfactory to leave matters in uncertainty. There is a strong case for an independent inquiry.

[The following is one of the reader comments on Mr Berlins's column:

31 Aug 09, 9:15am

'Much has been made of a BBBC poll, mostly by the BBBC, about the hostility in Scotland to the release of Mr Megrahi.

'I have yet to find more than one person who believes that he should not have been released.

'If you care to peruse these poll results from newspapers in Scotland, particularly the one from Lockerbie, you, too, might be puzzled by the BBBC poll results.

'Those For first number, those Against second number

Dumfries & Galloway Standard 88.4% 11.6%
Annandale Observer 73% 27% (Lockerbie paper)
Perthshire Advertiser 90.6% 8.4%
Ross-shire Journal 87% 13%
Scotsman 58% 42% (despite Edinburgh Evening News claims!)
Lennox Herald 80.5% 19.5%
Oban Times 89% 11%
Kilmarnock Standard 72.5% 28.5%
East Kilbride News 71% 29%
West Lothian Courier 75.2% 24.8%
Hamilton Advertiser 60.3% 39.7%
Airdrie Advertiser 56.1% 43.9%
Wishaw Press 83% 17%
Paisley Daily Express 62.23% 37.7%

You can add on a Reuters poll which gives a fairly even split and a Daily Mail poll also!

'The much trumpetted BBBC poll must have serious flaws, or someone manipulated the questions in such a way to get the result required.

'Otherwise, if you were aware of the above poll results, in all honesty one would have to start again, would one not?']

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