Tuesday 9 May 2023

Camp Zeist should stand as a warning for our justice system

[This is the headline over an article by me published in today's edition of The Herald. It can be read here. What follows is an expanded version of the article:]

The Scottish Government is promoting legislation that will permit rape cases to be tried, on a trial basis, without a jury. The only recent instance in which judges of the High Court of Justiciary have presided over a trial on indictment without a jury is the Lockerbie case. 

The conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in that trial in 2001 has been widely criticised. The late Ian Hamilton KC opined, with only slight exaggeration, "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted."  I myself commented "that a shameful miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated and that the Scottish criminal justice system has been gravely sullied." 

The official report by Professor Hans Köchler, a United Nations-appointed observer at the trial, contains the following:

"13. The Opinion of the Court is exclusively based on circumstantial evidence and on a series of highly problematic inferences. As to the undersigned's knowledge, there is not one single piece of material evidence linking the two accused to the crime. In such a context, the guilty verdict in regard to the first accused appears to be arbitrary, even irrational. This impression is enforced when one considers that the actual wording of the larger part of the Opinion of the Court points more into the direction of a 'not proven' verdict. The arbitrary aspect of the verdict is becoming even more obvious when one considers that the prosecution, at a rather late stage of the trial, decided to 'split' the accusation and to change the very essence of the indictment by renouncing the identification of the second accused as a member of Libyan intelligence so as to actually disengage him from the formerly alleged collusion with the first accused in the supposed perpetration of the crime. Some light is shed on this procedure by the otherwise totally incomprehensible 'not guilty' verdict in regard to the second accused.

"14. This leads the undersigned to the suspicion that political considerations may have been overriding a strictly judicial evaluation of the case and thus may have adversely affected the outcome of the trial. This may have a profound impact on the evaluation of the professional reputation and integrity of the panel of three Scottish judges. Seen from the final outcome, a certain coordination of the strategies of the prosecution, of the defense, and of the judges' considerations during the later period of the trial is not totally unlikely. This, however, − when actually proven − would have a devastating effect on the whole legal process of the Scottish Court in the Netherlands and on the legal quality of its findings.

"15. In the above context, the undersigned has reached the general conclusion that the outcome of the trial may well have been determined by political considerations and may to a considerable extent have been the result of more or less openly exercised influence from the part of actors outside the judicial framework − facts which are not compatible with the basic principle of the division of powers and with the independence of the judiciary, and which put in jeopardy the very rule of law and the confidence citizens must have in the legitimacy of state power and the functioning of the state's organs − whether on the traditional national level or in the framework of international justice as it is gradually being established through the United Nations Organization.

"16. On the basis of the above observations and evaluation, the undersigned has − to his great dismay − reached the conclusion that the trial, seen in its entirety, was not fair and was not conducted in an objective manner. Indeed, there are many more questions and doubts at the end of the trial than there were at its beginning. The trial has effectively created more confusion than clarity and no rational observer can make any statement on the complex subject matter 'beyond any reasonable doubt.' Irrespective of this regrettable outcome, the search for the truth must continue. This is the requirement of the rule of law and the right of the victims' families and of the international public."

The Lockerbie trial resulted in a conviction. But it also gravely besmirched the reputation of the Scottish criminal justice system. The proposal to institute, on a trial basis, non-jury courts in rape cases may well achieve the apparently desired objective of increasing convictions in such cases. But at what cost to the administration of justice and the reputation of the Scottish criminal justice system? Let the Lockerbie case stand as a warning.

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