Friday 4 March 2016

His life had never been the same after Lockerbie

[What follows is excerpted from an obituary of Lord Coulsfield that appears in today’s edition of The Herald:]

John Taylor Cameron, Lord Coulsfield, who has died aged 81, was one of the three judges who picked through the evidential wreckage of Pan Am flight 103, blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, with the total loss of 270 people on the plane and in the quiet Scottish border town.

As a Scot, a friend of the United States and a humanitarian in general, Lord Coulsfield had to bury his own pain to do his objective job – to determine what exactly had happened, who had carried out the atrocity and bring judgement down upon them. He played a major and historic part in trying to do so, even though questions still remain and possibly always will over the tragedy.

At the time of the disaster, still grieving, it was hard for all of us, both here and in the US, to understand the legal labyrinth the case entailed, why it moved from Scotland to the Netherlands for example. Despite the protests of the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi*, it was decided to hold the case in a neutral country rather than Scotland or the US – where most of the victims came from. The fact that the trial was held in a disused former US Air Force base, Camp Zeist near Utrecht, added to the poignancy since the camp was a Nazi transport centre for Jews, taken over during the Cold War by the Americans.

For the trial, Camp Zeist was declared Scottish soil, beholden to Scots Law. That law was broken in September 2000 when Lord Coulsfield's bicycle was stolen despite tight security around the Camp Zeist judges.

In January 1991 [sic; actually 2001], after a nine-month trial, Lord Coulsfield and his two fellow Scottish judges found the Libyan agent Abdelbaset al-Megrahi guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment for murder. A second Libyan, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.

Al-Megrahi was jailed in Scotland until, after various defence appeals which said he had prostate cancer, he was freed by the Scottish government "on compassionate grounds" and put on a flight to Libya. On his arrival home, a pro-Gaddafi Libyan rent-a-mob waved a giant Scottish flag as he stepped from his aircraft in Tripoli. To foreign news services such as CNN, it seemed to apply some sort of Scottish collusion, which was most certainly not the case.

Edinburgh and Oxford-educated Lord Coulsfield was chosen as one of three Scottish judges – along with presiding judge Lord Sutherland and Lord MacLean, with Lord Abernethy as a non-voting associate judge – to peruse the intricate, complex evidence and rule on the case. Scots Law remaining historically distinct from its English equivalent, a specially-convened Scottish Court was set up at the disused Camp Zeist. That court would become a world news focus for nine months until Lord Coulsfield and his two colleagues found al-Megrahi guilty of murder by organising the downing of PanAm 103. (...)

Lord Coulsfield married Bridget Sloan in 1964. They had no children. He retired in 2002, admitting his life had never been the same after Lockerbie. He died after a short illness.

*[RB: There were no such protests from Gaddafi. Indeed, the neutral venue scheme was formulated to meet Libyan objections to a trial in Scotland (objections that emanated from the Libyan defence team, not the Libyan Government). The true sequence of events is set out in the blogpost The neutral venue proposal.]

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