9 November 2010

Lockerbie case in Holyrood...

There is one fascinating passage which I neglected to mention in my Sunday review of David Torrance's biography of Alex Salmond, Against the Odds. It is particularly worth highlighting today, as the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee sits this afternoon to consider the Justice for Megrahi petition, which calls:

"...on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to open an independent inquiry into the 2001 Kamp van Zeist conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988."

The petition received 1646 signatures - including mine - and will be spoken to today by Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora perished in the tragedy; Robert Black QC, who many of you will undoubtedly have encountered on his Lockerbie Case blog; former police officer Iain McKie and co-founder of the campaign committee, Robert Forrester. Although the title of the petition suggests a particular view of the guilt of al-Megrahi, and its founder members are folk who believe him to have been wrongly convicted, the petition itself is ecumenical. If doubts are harboured, outstanding questions remain - that is a real issue for those people who believe he was properly convicted. There are others - including myself - who are cautious about taking a strong position on the question of Megrahi's guilt. Not having seen the evidence, one ought to be shy of certainties. That ought to include all certainties, including the idea that the judges of the High Court of Justiciary who tried him are exempt from human error, that all the relevant evidence was presented, that doubts were justly explored. Although not a figure I'd normally expect to borrow the words from my own mouth, Cardinal Keith O'Brien pretty faithfully articulates my own concerns and why, like him, I support the independent enquiry Holyrood is being petitioned to conduct today:

"Earlier this year, I described the murder of 243 innocent people on board Pan Am flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988 as an act of unbelievable horror and gratuitous barbarity. Many legal consequences flowed from that act culminating in the conviction of a Libyan citizen, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing. From the moment that verdict was announced, voices have been raised in protest. Over the years the clamour has grown amongst, lawyers, politicians, academics and growing numbers of ordinary citizens that the verdict amounted to a miscarriage of justice.

I do not claim to have examined all the evidence in this case, far from it, but I do claim to be increasingly concerned about the reputation of the Scottish Justice system. I have defended publicly the system of justice in this country and have done so because it enjoys my support and confidence. Global accusations of wrongful conviction made against our system must be dealt with. Left unheeded they will weaken the administration of justice in Scotland by casting doubts on its probity and ability. I believe the best way to remedy this is for the Scottish Parliament to launch an independent inquiry into the 2001 conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

Regardless of the outcome I believe Scotland’s Justice System would be strengthened by such a process. Either a conviction will be upheld and the process vindicated or it will be struck down, demonstrating to the world that Scotland has the wisdom and compassion needed to rectify its mistakes. In either event I will willingly accept the outcome.”

But back to Salmond and Torrance. In some quarters, it is often assumed that Megrahi's compassionate release was predicated on an unavowed belief that the man was innocent. When he was released from prison, the most familiar argument I encountered was a confused one - but reduced to its bones it ran - if he was innocent he should go free, if he was guilty he should have stayed in prison. At the time, I suggested that this was to confuse justice with mercy, obliterating the particular features of the latter. Interestingly, Torrance presents evidence that Salmond himself seems to have made no such conflation, arguing that:

"... Salmond most likely believed that al-Megrahi was guilty as charged. Indeed, the BBC journalist James Cook recalled asking the First Minister about his own view shortly after the release. Salmond replied that one of his first actions on coming to office had been to request all the papers relating to Lockerbie which, having read them, led him to believe al-Megrahi's conviction was sound." (Torrance (2010) Salmond Against the Odds, p. 264.)

The first hour of the Committee's time was taken up with discussion of the petition today. The panel's evidence can be seen here:


  1. I don’t know if Mr al-Megrahi is guilty or not but esto that he is, that still wouldn’t be all right.

    Mr Salmond may have seen all the documentation – I doubt it – but the rest of us haven’t. I remarked the other day on the embarrassing record of the ecclesiastical organisation to which the Cardinal and I belong. One of the blots on that record was the practice of trying people in secret on the basis of secret denunciations. We have moved on from that: it is a manifestation of God’s sometimes rather black sense of humour that the avowedly anti-Catholic British state has not. It might be objected that maintaining the secrecy of some of the state’s operations is essential for security. I’m afraid that is a charter for banging people up on the unexaminable say-so of security service spooks and torturers, and it is just wrong.

    I don’t think anyone imagines Mr al-Megrahi conceived of the operation, and carried it out entirely on his own. If he did it, it was as an agent of the Libyan state. There are many countries round the world whose non-combatants have been killed by the agents of the British state. Within our own lifetimes the number of the British state’s innocent victims must make Col Ghadaffi look like a rank amateur – and it is still going on. Presumably we would not like it if those states took to locking up our agents for life: but until we hand over those who murder in our name we have no moral authority to do it to others.

  2. Rather a belated comment, but nevertheless I'll make it.

    The central question is not, might Megrahi have been one of the Lockerbie bombers, but rather, which route did the bomb suitcase travel to find itself on Pan Am 103. The Crown insisted the suitcase had started its journey in the morning at Luqa airport, Malta, as unaccompanied illicit luggage bearing stolen Air Malta tags directing it to be transferred first at Frankfurt to PA103A, then at Heathrow to PA103. If this routing were established fact, or even probability, or even reasonable possibility, I might be inclined to cast a very beady eye on Mr. Megrahi, who was undoubtedly checking in for a flight to Tripoli at the next desk to the Frankfurt flight at Luqa that morning.

    His conviction would still be a miscarriage of justice of course, because you can't convict someone for simply catching a flight, no matter what happened elsewhere in the airport at the time, or his nationality or contacts.

    However, there is absolutely no evidence at all that the bomb suitcase was ever within a thousand miles of the island of Malta, and "considerable and quite compelling evidence that that did not happen," to quote Lord Osborne during Megrahi's first appeal. But it suited everyone to lay the blame on a tiny Mediterranean island, rather than the mighty Frankfurt-am-Main or London Heathrow airports. Never mind that Luqa had by far the best security system of the lot.

    Similarly, it suited everyone to turn a blind eye to mounting and compelling evidence that the bomb suitcase had been smuggled directly into Heathrow airport in the afternoon, and placed in the baggage container before the feeder flight from Frankfurt landed. It suited the Crown so much that they covered up and concealed significant portions of that evidence from the Zeist court.

    And now we have the SCCRC report, and pretty much the first thing it says is that it isn't going to address the matter of the routing of the bomb suitcase, because it wasn't something the defence had made many submissions about. Very convenient. Because of course the investigation never looked seriously at Heathrow as the point of ingestion, and went haring off to Malta in August 1989 - only eight months into the inquiry and nearly eighteen months before Megrahi entered the frame.

    They can't go back and investigate Heathrow airport from scratch now, nearly 24 years later. Best not say anything about that part!