Thursday, 13 July 2017

Denying public inquiry indefensible

What follows is an item originally posted on this blog on this date in 2009.

Justice, compassion, integrity

[What follows is the text of an article by Christine Grahame MSP in the Scottish edition of yesterday's Sunday Express. As far as I can discover, the article does not appear on the newspaper's website.]

He is the face of an atrocity which remains the worst act of terrorism ever perpetrated on UK soil, but soon, within a few months, the man convicted of the Lockerbie Pan Am 103 bombing will be dead. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi has advanced stage terminal prostate cancer. On the two occasions when I visited him at Greenock Prison his constant discomfort was clearly evident. For almost 10 years since his conviction he has fought relentlessly to clear his name, but his degenerative terminal illness has changed his focus. Now he is a man desperate to see his family before he dies.

When the UK Government learned of Megrahi’s imminent second appeal following a lengthy four year investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission which concluded there may have been a miscarriage of justice, Tony Blair hastily put in place a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with the Libyan Government. It was two years before that appeal began.

Many in the UK Government and elsewhere who do not want this second appeal by Mr Megrahi to go ahead. Why?

The reputation of the Scottish legal system would be on the line if Mr Megrahi were successful, yet with every week that goes by another significant piece of new evidence undermines the Crown’s case. There are professional reputations in the Scottish legal establishment and in the US that are being challenged here.

Robert Black, the highly respected Professor Emeritus of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh who knows this case inside out has concluded: “I am satisfied that not only was there a wrongful conviction, but the victim of it was an innocent man. Lawyers, and I hope others, will appreciate this distinction.” That in itself is a serious indictment of the Scottish legal system.

Megrahi’s appeal has been plagued by delay and takes no account whatsoever of his terminal condition. Last Tuesday the Court of Appeal announced a further delay due to the ill health of one of the Appeal Judges, Lord Wheatley. This additional delay puts the process back a further four months at least. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” Megrahi’s defence lawyer said when the Court announcement was made. The latest hold-up ensures, beyond reasonable doubt that Megrahi will not live to see the end of the appeal process, regardless of what legal choices he makes in the next few weeks.

He has a very stark decision to make either continue with the appeal and at the point of his death a family member can take it forward to its conclusion on his behalf. This option means Megrahi will die in prison in an environment that senior prison officials have already told me are not suitable for a terminally ill man. Or alternatively he can abandon his appeal and hope that he is granted a Prisoner Transfer back to Libya, but this is by no means guaranteed.

There is however a third way; compassionate release to Libya which would allow him to die near to his close knit family, including his elderly parents and allow the appeal to proceed to a determination.

This can be granted unilaterally by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and would reflect the principles of Scots law based on justice and compassion. This option is supported by legal experts and relatives of victims such as the redoubtable Dr Jim Swire who has campaigned tirelessly to expose the truth behind the bombing which claimed the life of his daughter Flora. Many are opposed to such a compromise of course, including a significant number, but not all, of the US relatives of Pan Am 103 as are senior officials in the Scottish Justice Department, some of whom built their careers on the Lockerbie case.

A Prisoner Transfer may be seen as conveniently ending the matter. That would be na├»ve. Such is the weight of fresh evidence indicating Megrahi’s innocence combined with significant doubt over the original material used to convict in the first place, that calls for a public inquiry are likely to increase and denying one, indefensible. It is vital that the truth is exposed, for all involved, and most particularly victims families. Compassionate release offers the only compromise which would exhaust due legal process, demonstrate compassion and prove the integrity of the Scottish judicial system. Justice, compassion, integrity, three words engraved on the Scottish Parliament’s Mace. Let’s hope and trust this nation lives up to them.

[RB: As we now (2017) know, the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Megrahi did not allow his appeal to continue and due process to be observed. Why not?  Because the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, wholly gratuitously and unnecessarily, insisted on dealing with Megrahi’s compassionate release application along with the Libyan Government’s prisoner transfer application, and the latter required abandonment of the ongoing appeal. Cunning, eh?]

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