Wednesday, 25 May 2016

MacAskill ‘has destroyed the Lockerbie conviction’

[This is the headline over a report by Mike Wade published in today’s edition of The Times. It reads in part:]

The eminent lawyer who designed the Lockerbie trial believes that the former Scottish justice secretary has destroyed the case against the only man found guilty of the atrocity.

Robert Black, QC, said that Kenny MacAskill’s contention in his new book that Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi had not bought the clothes wrapped around the explosive device that destroyed an airliner amounted to “the end of the conviction”.

[Professor Black said that Mr MacAskill] had in effect accepted a key finding of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), which in June 2007 found that “no reasonable court could have drawn the inference that [al-Megrahi] was the purchaser”. [RB: See Chapter 21 of the SCCRC’s Statement of Reasons.]

The SCCRC’s position was to form the substance of al-Megrahi’s second appeal. Before his death in 2012 the Libyan said he had dropped the case as part of a deal to allow him to leave jail in Scotland for his home in Tripoli after he had terminal cancer diagnosed.

“As the SCCRC correctly said, if Megrahi was not held to be the purchaser in Malta then there was insufficient evidence in law to convict him,” Professor Black said. [RB: See para 21.100 of the SCCRC’s Statement of Reasons.] “I wonder if Kenny MacAskill realises he is undermining the whole basis of the conviction.”

Professor Black noted that Mr MacAskill’s belief that the “clothes were purchased in Malta, but not by Megrahi” had recently been endorsed by Alex Salmond, the former first minister.

“If that were now the official Scottish government position, that is the end of the conviction,” Professor Black said. In a statement, the Crown Office said it remained certain of al-Megrahi’s guilt.

Professor Black, emeritus professor of law at the University of Edinburgh, intervened after a series of extraordinary interviews by the former justice secretary. Mr MacAskill’s book, The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search For Justice, is published tomorrow. On Monday, Mr MacAskill told Border Television that al-Megrahi’s conviction was probably “unsafe”. Yesterday he reiterated a claim made in the book that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC) carried out the attack.

Al-Megrahi was a “small cog”, said Mr MacAskill, in a large scheme: “It involved Libya, it involved Iran, it involved no doubt Syria, involved the Palestinian terrorist organisations, they came together and they carried it out.”

In his book, he claims he was told by “several sources” about a document that implicated the PFLP-GC in the bombing. This week, he suggested that Westminster officials had been ready to “close down” a Scottish newspaper that published an article based on the document. Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 270 people. 

It would take 12 years for al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, his co-accused, to come to trial at the specially convened Scottish court devised by Professor Black at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

Only al-Megrahi was found guilty, to the disbelief of Professor Black. [RB: What astonished me was, of course, that Megrahi was found guilty, not that “only Megrahi” was.] Critics of the verdict focused on the testimony of Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who said al-Megrahi “resembled” a man who bought clothes in his store. It later emerged that Mr Gauci had been paid $1 million by the US justice department’s Rewards for Justice programme. Professor Black said that according to Mr MacAskill the investigation, prosecution and trial were apparently all exemplary. He added: “In fact, there were grave — and perhaps criminal — flaws in all three.”

Al-Megrahi’s first appeal was rejected in 2002 but five years later the SCCRC found four grounds to refer the case to the High Court. The SCCRC recommendations were passed to the Crown a month after the SNP came to power in May 2007. (...)

Last night the Crown Office said that Mr MacAskill’s suggestion about PFLP-GC involvement in the Lockerbie bombing was fully considered by the trial court “and does nothing to undermine the Crown’s case that Megrahi acted with others in the bombing of flight Pan Am 103”.

A spokesman added: “All material which met the Crown’s disclosure obligations in relation to the PFLP-GC was properly disclosed to the defence before the trial and this was confirmed by the SCCRC’s investigation.” [RB: But lots of other material was not “properly disclosed”. See SCCRC’s Statement of Reasons, Chapters 22, 23, 24(2) and 25.]

[The same newspaper contains an article by Magnus Linklater headlined Lockerbie book raises doubts about MacAskill. It reads in part:]

His newly published book, The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice, reveals that after al-Megrahi’s release, Mr MacAskill harboured grave doubts about the safety of his conviction, and in particular the identification evidence that led to his life sentence. In the book, he states unequivocally that al-Megrahi was not the man who walked into a Maltese shop and bought the clothes that were later found to have been wrapped around the bomb. “The clothes were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi,” he writes. “The identification is suspect.”

Since this was a central part of the prosecution case, it is odd, not to say dumbfounding, that the minister with responsibility for the Scottish prosecution service now says that the case against its prime suspect was flawed.

The theory that Mr MacAskill prefers challenges the conclusions of the department he once ran and the Crown Office he represented. He believes that the bombing was planned by a Palestinian group, the PFLP-GC, led by its founder, Ahmed Jibril, and was later delegated to the Libyans to carry out. What is more, he says that a document held by the UK government would have confirmed this line, but was withheld from the defence.

Warming to his theme in television and radio interviews, Mr MacAskill revealed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London had tried to prevent The Heraldnewspaper from publishing a Jordanian document implicating the PFLP-GC, on the ground that it might interfere with the British government’s attempts to deport the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada. Not only that, in order to prevent its publication, the FCO had threatened to suppress an entire edition of the paper — “an action unheard of in my lifetime in Scotland”, as Mr MacAskill put it. (...)

If all this was known to him during his term in office, why was he content to allow the official version of the Lockerbie case to stand unchallenged, and indeed as a member of the Scottish government, to defend the outcome of the Lockerbie trial, when he harboured such grave doubts about it? (...)

Coming from a former justice secretary these theories will, of course, be seized upon gleefully by those who have argued so loud and long that the whole prosecution case was misconceived. Indeed that has already happened, with one member of the pro-al-Megrahi team declaring that Mr MacAskill’s book blows a hole in the prosecution case.

It does nothing of the sort, of course. The PII document and the identification of al-Megrahi by the Maltese shop owner would both have formed part of an appeal, and, if al-Megrahi had not withdrawn from the process, would have been duly tested in court. Few lawyers believe that they would have been enough to overturn the conviction. 

[RB: This is an utterly astonishing assertion by Mr Linklater. Very much closer to the truth is the statement by Ian Hamilton QC: "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted.”]

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