The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, will later today (29 February) make a statement to the Scottish Parliament. The move is in response to – or, more accurately, in response to media reports and political statements relating to – the following passage of Megrahi: You are my Jury (which appears on p.354):
On 10 August, MacAskill and his senior civil servants met a delegation of Libyan officials, including Minister Al-Obedi, the Libyan Supreme Court Judge Azzam Eddeeb, and the London Chargé d’Affaires Omar Jelban. By this time I was desperate. The 90-day limit for considering the prisoner transfer application had passed and, although I had some vocal public supporters, MacAskill was coming under considerable pressure to reject both applications. After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obedi said that towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private. Once the others had withdrawn, he stated that MacAskill gave him to understand that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. He said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so. It meant abandoning my quest for justice.
It’s clear from this passage that Abdelbaset does NOT allege either that MacAskill said anything along those lines to him directly, or that MacAskill offered to grant compassionate release in return for Abdelbaset dropping his appeal. It’s a common trick of politicians to deny allegations that have not been made. Let’s hope that MacAskill’s statement doesn’t.
MacAskill will also be facing questions from MSPs. There is only one question that he must answer: did he at any point indicate to Obedi that it would be easier for him to grant Abdelbaset’s compassionate release application if he dropped his appeal?
If the answer is a categorical no, then it is Obedi’s word against his and there, perhaps, the matter will rest. If it is anything less than a flat denial, then the question is unlikely to go away.
The Scottish Government has, of course, already made a statement about the matter. On Monday a spokesman claimed that the book is “third-hand hearsay” and stated:
These claims are wrong – and officials were present at all meetings the Justice Secretary had on this matter at all times. The minutes of this meeting and indeed all other meetings, including with Mr Megrahi in Greenock Prison, were published by the Scottish Government and have been in the public domain since September 2009. We can say categorically that neither did the Scottish Government have any involvement of any kind in Mr Megrahi dropping his appeal, or indeed any interest in it. That was entirely a matter for Mr Megrahi and his legal team.
MacAskill himself said: It was always a decision for Mr al-Megrahi whether he maintained or abandoned his appeal, the decision I made was not predicated in any case on that, but that was a matter for him and his legal team.
I’ll deal with these points in turn.
Third-hand hearsay. Abdelbaset is clear in this section of the book that the conversation was hearsay, albeit not third-hand.
These claims are wrong. It’s not clear exactly what claims the Government was responding to. It’s very unlikely that they had a copy of the book, so it’s probable that the spokesman was responding to a report – possibly an inaccurate one – of its contents. (A number of media reports claimed, wrongly, that the book alleges that a deal was done.)
… officials were present at all meetings the Justice Secretary had on this matter at all times” If this is true, the question remains: did Mr MacAskill at any point, whether out of the earshot of others or not, say to Mr Obedi that it would be easier for him to grant Abdelbaset compassionate release if Abdelbaset dropped his appeal?
The minutes of this meeting and indeed all other meetings, including with Mr Megrahi in Greenock Prison, were published by the Scottish Government and have been in the public domain since September 2009. This is hardly relevant. If MacAskill asked to have a conversation in private, we might infer that he meant, inter alia, that it would not be minuted. It also raises the question, were the minutes contemporaneous?
We can say categorically that neither did the Scottish Government have any involvement of any kind in Mr Megrahi dropping his appeal, or indeed any interest in it. This falls well short of a denial that the conversation reported by Obedi took place. It is disingenuous of the Government to claim that it had no interest in Abdelbaset’s decision. Had the appeal gone ahead, it would have cast the Scottish criminal justice, and the Crown Office in particular, in a very poor light.
That was entirely a matter for Mr Megrahi and his legal team. In fact it was entirely a matter for Abdelbaset. His legal team made clear to him that he was under no obligation to drop his appeal and did not advise him that it might help his application for compassionate release.
It was always a decision for Mr al-Megrahi whether he maintained or abandoned his appeal No one has claimed otherwise.
… the decision I made was not predicated in any case on that, but that was a matter for him and his legal team. Abdelbaset quite clearly does not claim that MacAskill’s decision was predicated on whether or not he dropped the appeal.