in the last session by Dr Jim Swire, Robert Black QC and other and despite some technical hitches in the process, attracted some 1,646 signatures. The petition 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."
After taking evidence from the petitioners, the Petitions Committee wrote to the Scottish Government, asking three discrete questions:
Will you 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 as called for by the petitioner and for the reasons given in the petition?
If not, will you provide a detailed explanation why not, specifying whether there is any legislation which would prevent you from holding such an inquiry, what this legislation is and how it prevents?
Who would have the power to undertake an inquiry in the terms proposed in the petition?
The government's answer to all three questions was basically - no. Ministers responded in the following terms towards the end of January this year:
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice made clear in his response of 16 September to a Parliamentary Question (S3W-35844) from George Foulkes on this issue that the Government have no plans to initiate an inquiry on this issue.
The Government does not doubt the safety of the conviction of Mr Al-Megrahi. He was tried and convicted by a Scottish court before three judges and his appeal against conviction, heard by a panel of five judges, was unsuccessful. A second appeal, following a referral from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, was abandoned by Mr Al-Megrahi. The conduct of his defence during his trial and the appeals, including his decision not to give evidence at trial and the decision to abandon the second appeal, was entirely a matter for Mr Al-Megrahi and his legal advisors.
The Government’s view is that the petition is inviting the Scottish Government to do something which falls properly to the criminal justice system i.e. inquire into whether a miscarriage of justice has taken place. The criminal justice system already provides a mechanism for that to happen. The fact that Mr Al-Megrahi chose to abandon his second appeal rather than pursue it is entirely a matter for him and it would not be appropriate for the Scottish Government to institute an inquiry as a result.
The Inquiries Act 2005 provides that, to the extent that the matters dealt with are devolved, and criminal justice is devolved, the Scottish Government would have the power to conduct an inquiry. However, the wide ranging and international nature of the issues involved (even if the inquiry is confined to the trial and does not concern itself with wider matters) means that there is every likelihood of issues arising which are not devolved, which would require either a joint inquiry with or a separate inquiry by the UK government.
Separately, the Scottish Government intends to bring forward legislation to allow the SCCRC to publish a statement of reasons in cases such as Mr Al-Megrahi's where an appeal is abandoned, subject of course to legal restrictions applying to the SCCRC such as data protection, the convention rights of individuals and international obligations attaching to information provided by foreign authorities.
The Committee also received correspondence from such varied bodies as the Lord Advocate and the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, asking the latter whether they can re-open an abandoned appeal before the Court of Criminal Appeal. On the 28th of June, the freshly constituted Public Petitions Committee agreed "to refer the petition to the Justice Committee under Rule 15.6.2 for further consideration". Under the parliament's standing orders, the Committee could have responded in a number of ways. It might have unilaterally closed the petition [Rule 15.7]. Indeed, Holyrood's Justice Committee may decide to do so in due course. One significant aspect of this development is that the chair of the committee to which the petition has been referred, the SNP's Christine Grahame, has gone on record on several occasions, questioning Megrahi's guilt. Of course, by no means does the petition's continuing survival in Holyrood suggest that any independent public enquiry will be held into the case. What it does mean, however, is that questions about the evidence against Megrahi and his culpability for the atrocity over Lockerbie will continue to find voice the Scottish public sphere, in the months to come.