Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lockerbie Appeal : Scots Media ask ‘Freedom or jail’ for Megrahi ?

An interesting report from Scotland on Sunday on the ongoing appeal of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi against his conviction for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, in December 1988.

Scotland on Sunday reports :

Should this man, jailed for life for the Lockerbie bombing, be freed to die with his family?

Published Date: 10 May 2009
By Tom Peterkin
Scottish Political Editor

FROM his prison cell in HMP Greenock, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi used to try to follow the legal arguments that he hoped would clear him of the worst terrorist outrage ever committed on UK territory.

Now, however, the prostate cancer that is gradually killing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing has become so painful that he can no longer concentrate on the complex case.

The CCTV link that connects his cell with the Court of Appeal in Edinburgh lies unused as he languishes on his bed resting between hospital appointments.

The pain also distracts him from the satellite television that keeps him in touch with the political developments that will determine what remains of his future.

It is perhaps a strange paradox that while the Lockerbie bomber himself has been forced to avert his eyes from his own fate, the rest of the world is once again focusing on the man convicted of the murder of 270 people when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie 20 years ago.

But the world's gaze is not solely fixed on the former Libyan intelligence agent, who, depending on your point of view, is considered to be Britain's biggest mass-murderer or the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.

International eyes are also trained on Alex Salmond, the First Minister, and his Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill.

The latest twist in the tortuous Lockerbie legal saga has provided Salmond with the most taxing dilemma that he has faced since he became First Minister two years ago.

For it is now down to Salmond and MacAskill to decide whether Megrahi, 57, should remain in Scotland or go home to Libya to die.

It is a decision that is fraught with diplomatic pitfalls which will test the First Minister's mettle in a way that it has never been tested before. Salmond may be a star performer when it comes to Scottish politics, where he has proved adept at picking fights with Westminster and promoting populist policies, such as abolishing bridge tolls, freezing council tax and ending student fees.

But the fate of Megrahi goes far beyond the parochial world of Holyrood and poses all sorts of questions about Scotland and, indeed, Britain's standing on the world stage.

At stake is Britain's relationship with the oil-rich nation of Libya and, of course, America, our most important ally from where the vast majority of the Lockerbie victims came.

Complicating matters further is Salmond's turbulent relationship with Westminster, which has already been subjected to much strain by the Lockerbie affair.

Last week's application by the Libyan authorities to have Megrahi transferred from Scotland can be traced back to the so-called "deal in the desert" that was struck between Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister.

The deal, in June 2007, led to Salmond's first serious row with the UK Government when the First Minister protested that the Scottish authorities had not been consulted and warned that it could lead to Megrahi being transferred back to Libya.

Ironically, it is now Salmond who has 90 days to make up his mind about Megrahi's future under the terms of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement agreed by Blair and Gaddafi.

For the transfer to go ahead, Megrahi would have to agree to dropping his appeal against his conviction.

Salmond has said that his decision will be made on "judicial" rather than economic or political grounds.

But whatever judgment he arrives at will be forensically analysed in the search for ulterior motives, dirty deals and, no doubt, the conspiracy theories that have grown up around the legal process that culminated in Megrahi been given a 27-year life sentence.

It is perhaps easy to see how some in London and Edinburgh would view the repatriation of Megrahi as a convenient way of solving the long-standing Lockerbie problem.

Should Megrahi agree to drop his appeal in order to go home, a question mark would always remain over whether there had been a miscarriage of justice by the Scottish courts in the original trial. But his return would cement the improving relationship between Britain and Gaddafi – a controversial tie that could bring great economic benefits to Britain in the oil fields of Libya.

After all, allegations that Megrahi's case has been linked to the oil trade have been made in the past.

In February last year, Salmond said he was "strongly opposed" to suggestions that Megrahi would return home as part of a £450 million oil deal between Libya and BP. Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary, denied the reports.

Nevertheless, suspicions remain that Megrahi has become a pawn in the diplomatic manoeuvrings that have seen Libya move from a terrorist state towards becoming a modern civilised country – albeit one that is still run by the dictator Gaddafi.

For some years, he has been trying to rid his country of its pariah status. Britain has played a prominent role in that transformation. It was after secret talks with Britain and the US, that a major breakthrough was made in 2003, with his announcement that he was giving up nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes.

"I suspect that he (Megrahi] will go home," said a Libyan expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"This is really a very well orchestrated trade-off. For the past six years, diplomatic relations between Britain and Libya have improved immensely. Trade has increased. Apart from the oil industry there's also been a lot of consultancy work.

"Britain has got connections in their health and education systems and is helping with civil service reform. I suppose that you could argue that it is helping make a dictatorship even more efficient.

"But this is the final piece of the jigsaw. Once this is sorted out. There is nothing left. This is the only thorny issue between Britain and Libya. As far as politicians and governments are concerned, once this is done, it is finished."

Even if Megrahi remained a convicted mass murderer in the eyes of the Scottish legal system, the Libyan authorities would insist that his return had distanced them from the atrocity.

"They want him (Megrahi] home because as long as he is in a foreign country, their complicity in Lockerbie is undeniable," the expert said.

"Once he is freed, the thing becomes swept under the carpet. He is the only physical figure that ties Libya to doing it. He denies that he did it. They deny that they did it. But as long as a Libyan citizen is taking the blame, it is really difficult for them to wash their hands of it."

The safety of Megrahi's conviction has been a subject of huge controversy ever since he was found guilty of killing 259 aircraft passengers and 11 people on the ground in 2001 in a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands.

Professor Robert Black QC, one of the architects of the Camp Zeist court in The Hague, is one legal expert who believes in Megrahi's innocence.

"So many concerns have been expressed that for all this to be swept under the carpet is not in the public interest," Black said.

"In my view, it is in the Scottish public interest that the appeal proceeds, because it is a test of Scots Law. But I fully understand that, given Abdelbaset's state of health, his personal point of view is that he might want to return home to spend his last months with his family – that must be a very attractive proposition."

Black's view is shared by Jim Swire, the retired GP who lost his daughter Flora when the aircraft came down.

"At a human level, I am in favour of him being transferred because he is seriously ill," Swire said. "But it would be a bitter blow to drop the appeal, because I would like to see this evidence examined in public."

Swire believes that the case against Megrahi is fatally flawed.

He disputes the Camp Zeist court's view that Megrahi placed his bomb in a suitcase, wrapped in clothes he'd purchased from a shop in Malta, loaded it on to an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to a second flight to London before being eventually loaded on to the doomed aircraft.

Instead, Swire claims that there was a break-in at Heathrow Airport on the morning of the flight, which resulted in the bomb boarding the plane in London – a theory that he claims has been covered up.

After a three-year investigation, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred Megrahi's case to appeal on six grounds – two of which have been made public.

One is a finding by the commission that "there is no reasonable basis" for the trial court's conclusion that Megrahi purchased the clothes in Malta on the day alleged.

The other is that the owner of the clothes shop, Anthony Gauci, had seen Megrahi's picture in a magazine article about Lockerbie days before he picked him out of a line-up.

There is also a belief in some quarters that the appeal could reveal details about the politics of the Lockerbie investigation that could cause embarrassment in Washington, London and Edinburgh.

But those who led the investigation are absolutely confident that the conviction is safe.

"I am convinced of the evidence," said Richard Marquise, the FBI agent who led the US side of the investigation.

"I am convinced the conviction is true, accurate and correct. I keep reading all these suggestions that evidence was planted, that it was manipulated, twisted and changed. But I got that evidence ready for the trial and I am absolutely convinced of its veracity and that what we collected was all accurate and correct.

"There is so much information in the public domain that's just wrong. If you took everything published as fact, you would certainly think there was doubt. But a lot of things are published as fact that are just not true."

Salmond will no doubt be keenly aware that many of the American victims agree wholeheartedly with Marquise's view. And there is no doubt that sending Megrahi back to Libya would trigger a huge amount of American anger and a massive diplomatic problem for both Scotland and the UK as a whole.

"I think it would be outrageous if Megrahi was sent home," said Frank Duggan, a Washington lawyer who is president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.

"The trial in the Hague was set up, because our Government and the British Government made statements saying that if anybody was found guilty, they would serve their prison sentence in Scotland. President Clinton and Tony Blair said that. The only way for him to be sent home would be for his miserable little carcase to go back to Libya in a pine box. The man is an unrepentant murderer."

Megrahi's supporters also acknowledge the strength of feeling in America and the impact that could have on the Scottish ministers' decision. As Black said: "I suspect that Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill's civil servants are advising them that they should grant him the repatriation. There is nothing they would like better than this to go away quietly. But they are politicians and they have to weigh up the reaction."

Mischievously, he added: "Given that we want lots and lots of Americans to come to Scotland for the Homecoming and this would have the American media up in arms – could that have adverse consequences?" That, it has to be said, may turn out to be the least of Alex Salmond's worries.

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