The following article appears in the current issue of Private Eye (no. 1421):
If former Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill believed his new book about the Lockerbie bombing would end the controversy surrounding the conviction of Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, he was wrong.
The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice, provides an intriguing insight into the double dealing of the US and UK governments, whose ‘deals in the desert’ with Colonel Gaddafi were agreed against the backdrop of Megrahi’s release ‘on compassionate grounds’. But in the book MacAskill demolishes a central pillar of the prosecution case against Megrahi, the only man convicted of the atrocity. He concludes that Megrahi did not, as claimed, buy the incriminating clothes used to pack the bomb suitcase from a Maltese shop – the direct link between Megrahi and the bomb.
He then renders the conviction doubly unsafe by revealing the contents of material which has been kept secret under a controversial public interest immunity (PII) certificate signed in 2008 by the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.
Then known only to originate from a foreign country, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) had identified the material as potentially important to Megrahi’s defence. The Crown’s failure to disclose it at Megrahi’s trial in 2000 was one of the commission’s grounds for granting the appeal. Under the PII, the commission could not reveal the contents, leading to accusations that the government was involved in a cover-up. (Eye 1205).
MacAskill, who signed Megrahi’s release back to Libya, now reveals that the document in question was a letter from the late King Hussein of Jordan to then prime minister John Major, blaming the atrocity on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). Eye readers will recall that members of the group were the original suspects. Some had been caught in Germany two months before Lockerbie, apparently preparing an airliner attack.
Bomb maker Marwan Khreesat later confessed to having built five bombs designed to detonate at altitude. Two were concealed within Toshiba radio-cassette players, one of which was never recovered. The Lockerbie bomb was also contained within a Toshiba radio cassette player – although a different model. Suspicions of PFLP-GC involvement were strengthened because Khreesat’s bombs were designed to detonate between 30 and 50 minutes after takeoff. The Lockerbie bomb on Pan Am flight 103 exploded 38 minutes after the airliner left Heathrow on 21 December 1988.
Despite admitting building aircraft bombs, Khreesat was freed by a German court a fortnight after his arrest and allowed to return to his native Jordan. He was later revealed to be an informant for the German and Jordanian
intelligence services, which added weight to King Hussein’s letter to prime minister Major.
MacAskill seeks to downplay the letter’s significance, saying it was sent soon after Lockerbie and before the police investigation switched focus from the PFLP-GC to Megrahi in 1990. This is not the case. It emerged during the appeal hearings that the letter was sent in 1996 – long after the investigation had changed tack.
In his book MacAskill thus underscores two of the six grounds which the SSCRC decided rendered the conviction unsafe. In an interview on Scottish television he even conceded it may ‘unsafe’, but said he was still convinced of Megrahi’s guilt. Not only is some of his reasoning based on untested assertions, untested evidence and in places on the discredited testimony of CIA supergrass Majid Giaka, but as a lawyer he should know that is not how the criminal justice system works.
The book has led to calls for a further appeal against conviction and for a far reaching inquiry. Police in Scotland are already investigating allegations of criminal misconduct made by the Justice for Megrahi campaign against some of those involved in the Libyan’s conviction – including allegations of withholding evidence from the defence. The book now raises questions about who else shared MacAskill’s doubts over the safety of elements of the case and for how long.
MacAskill may himself yet be in hot water over the breach of the PII certificate. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was still considering the contents of his book.