Tuesday 28 February 2012

Megrahi and MacAskill

Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi
It was always inevitable that the anti-independence parties and their media lackeys would seek to use the Megrahi affair as a stick with which to beat the SNP, and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in particular. The only surprise is that it has taken them so long.

What has roused them to resort to this line of attack is a snippet from the newly-published biography, Megrahi: You Are My Jury, by writer, researcher and TV producer John Ashtonk which claims that MacAskill urged Megrahi to drop his appeal against conviction for the Lockerbie bombing in return for favourable consideration of his application for release on licence on compassionate grounds. It turns out that this allegation is based on nothing more worthy or reliable than second- or third-hand hearsay. But that hasn't prevented the SNP's enemies pouncing on it as if it was gospel.

The fact that the story has absolutely no provenance worthy of the name should be sufficient grounds to dismiss it. And those without a political and/or personal agenda already have. But I would suggest that there are further grounds for giving the story no credence. Just ask yourself the questions, "Why would MacAskill do such a thing? What did he have to gain?".

It is not at all beyond the realms of possibility that MacAskill might wish to obviate the possibility of embarrassment to Scotland's legal establishment which would almost certainly result from a re-examination of the prosecution case against Megrahi in the appeal court. It is even easier to believe that senior figures in Scotland's legal establishment might have prevailed upon MacAskill to do whatever he could to get the appeal dropped.

What is not credible is that MacAskill would have gone along with this to the extent of offering inducements to Megrahi in a manner that might, at the very least, constitute serious impropriety. Such a thing is unbelievable in part because MacAskill is simply not that kind of person. His every action in office has shown him to be a man of honour and integrity. Behaving in the way that he is accused of would be way out of character.

Neither is MacAskill stupid. He would surely realise the near inevitability of such behaviour being exposed. This is a man who was aware that he was about to have the massive resources of the US and the UK ranged against him frantically scrabbling about looking for the slightest flaw or misstep in the way he handled the matter of Megrahi's two applications for release - compassionate release under Scots law and repatriation under the terms of the UK government's prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya.

Perhaps more importantly, MacAskill would have no reason to think that offering inducements would be either necessary or effective. We are being asked to believe that MacAskill took a not insignificant risk for no guaranteed reward. Even if he had been interested in the "reward" of having Megrahi abandon his appeal, the risk involved in acting improperly simply could not have been worth it. Had MacAskill truly been that desperate to have the appeal dropped then he could simply have resorted to the PTA which would have required that all active court proceedings be terminated before it could be implemented.

Furthermore, what good would it do to have the appeal dropped? In terms of the legal establishment's likely desire to avoid having the case re-examined it would have done no good at all. The clamour for the truth was not about to go away that easily.

All in all, the tales of MacAskill's alleged dodgy dealing must be dismissed as mere gossip. And the attacks on MacAskill founded on that gossip must be recognised as politically-motivated malicious smears.


  1. Late, but I didn't notice this before.

    Indeed, you can call this third-hand hearsay if you like, that is strictly what it is. Al-Megrahi told Ashton that al-Obeidi had told him that MacAskill said.... You get the picture.

    The question is, who is likely to be lying in that chain of narrative? Robert Black, who knows al-Obeidi, has said that he doesn't believe he would have lied to al-Megrahi - which was the most popular speculation. What he did say was that it is not at all impossible that al-Obeidi, in his zeal to secure al-Megrahi's repatriation before some national anniversary, had misunderstood something MacAskill had said, and misinterpreted the situation to al-Megrahi. This seems to be the most probable explanation.

    Certainly, no other reason for al-Megrahi withdrawing his appeal has ever come to light. It was an inexplicable decision, under the circumstances. Some have even interpreted it as an admission of guilt! If he hadn't done that, he would officially be an innocent man by now. The announcement of the decision was very strange - a few days before if happened, the BBC reported that al-Megrahi would withdraw the appeal, and then he would be granted compassionate release - it sounded like a quid pro quo, even then.

    If this was a misunderstanding, it is an absolute tragedy for both al-Megrahi personally (as it turned out he did live well past the time when the appeal would have been concluded), and for the transparency of Scottish justice. But for that misunderstanding, the appeal could have continued, and the road-block to finding out what really happened at Lockerbie would have shifted.

    However, many powerful people seem extraordinarily invested in preventing any meaningful progress in this case. They need al-Megrahi's conviction to stand in order to found on that to refuse any suggestion that Libya was not the culprit, and in particular that the bomb did not transit from Malta via Frankfurt. Those who study the case can produce reasoned arguments till they are coming out of their ears to show the overwhelming probability that the police simply screwed up and framed the wrong guy, and it is all to no avail, as the official retort is that al-Megrahi was convicted of putting the bomb on the plane at Malta and thus no other possibilities can be put on the table.

    A successful appeal would have opened a can of worms. Perhaps several cans, and maybe sea serpents and Nessie in there as well. The conviction is the only thing keeping them shut.

    So what is MacAskill's role in all this? I have no idea. However, nine paragraphs of "he must be whiter than white because he's a good guy and he'd never do a thing like this and anyway I can't see how it would have benefited him" is not an answer.

  2. Maybe there are no answers. Sometimes you just don't get to the bottom of things because the conclusive evidence one way or the other simply doesn't exist. In which case, you have to make judgements on the basis of what you do know, or can reasonably assume.

    Megrahi's abandoning of his appeal has more of of the air of cock-up than conspiracy about it. A genuine misunderstanding? A miscommunication somewhere along the line? We'll probably never know. But I still don't see what MacAskill stood to gain by pressuring Megrahi to drop the appeal. Nothing that would outweigh what he stood to lose.

    The stuff about "nine paragraphs" etc was, I presume, a rhetorical device. I won't take it to seriously. It is more a case of those reasonable assumptions that I referred to. One of the things we know for sure is that MacAskill was walking on eggshells throughout the whole process. (Or "processes" if we must stipulate that the PTA and compassionate licence applications were entirely separate.) He knew that he was going to be under the spotlight and the microscope with some fine-tooth combing thrown in for good measure. The imperative for him was to be squeaky clean.

    Any suggestion that he acted improperly has to be weighed against that imperative. For him to knowingly take such a risk the potential reward would need to have been very substantial indeed. I've yet to hear any plausible theory of what that reward might have been.

    1. I've defended MacAskill against innumerable Americans baying for his blood, referring to him as "MacAsskill", and denouncing him in particular and all Scotland in general for releasing al-Megrahi. Nevertheless I remain deeply uneasy about the circumstances of the withdrawal of that appeal.

      I'm not prepared to conclude that MacAskill is totally blameless in this respect just because he's generally one of the good guys and I don't KNOW what motive he might have had for pulling something underhand. Since I don't know, I remain on the fence, and open to being persuaded either way by actual evidence, should it emerge.

    2. Surely in the absence of any evidence the man is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

    3. If this were a court of law, then yes. Even though al-Megrahi wasn't accorded any such benefit.

      However, as far as my own thoughts on the matter go, not necessarily. The benefit of the doubt is that I continue to be uncertain. I cannot declare him guilty, obviously. But neither will I proclaim his innocence.