New Statesman article

The latest issue of the New Statesman carries the following article by me under the headline Still no justice for Megrahi


The killing of 270 people on 21 December 1988, when a bomb destroyed the New York bound Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, was Britain’s worst mass murder. It resulted in the conviction in 2001 of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, which to many who have studied the case, is the country’s worst miscarriage of justice. Yet, for the wider public, the only cause for concern is that Megrahi was allowed home to Libya. In the two and a half years since his plane took off from Glasgow airport, David Cameron and Scotland’s opposition parties have missed no opportunity to sling mud at the SNP justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, for his decision to grant the terminally ill prisoner compassionate release.

Everyone recalls Megrahi being greeted by Saltire-waving supporters in Tripoli, but few know that, two years earlier, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC – the statutory body that examines alleged miscarriages of justice) referred his case back to the court of appeal on six grounds, including that the trial court judgment was unreasonable.

In convicting Megrahi, three Scottish law lords accepted the Crown’s case that on 7 December 1988 Megrahi bought clothes from a small shop in Malta, which were later placed in the same suitcase as the bomb. At first glance, it appeared to fit: Megrahi was in Malta that day and the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, said he looked similar to a man who had bought clothes a few weeks before the bombing. But Gauci was certain that it was raining as the man left the shop, yet weather records showed that there was no rain on the 7th – Megrahi’s only window of opportunity. He also described a man taller and older than Megrahi.

The SCCRC discovered that Crown had failed to disclose evidence to Megrahi’s defence team, including documents revealing that, before first picking out Megrahi from a photo line-up in 1991, Gauci knew that a large reward was on offer from the US government and had  “expressed an interest in receiving money”.

Why did Megrahi abandon his appeal? His explanation, revealed for the first time last month, is that MacAskill privately told a Libyan government minister that it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if he dropped the appeal. MacAskill denies it, claiming his SNP government had nothing to fear from the appeal.  Others disagree, among them Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the bombing and firmly believes Megrahi was wrongly convicted. They believe that the Libyan’s decision averted possibly the biggest crisis that Scotland’s criminal justice system has ever faced. Given that the CJS is the country’s foremost independent institution, that outcome would have caused particular discomfort to a party that stands for full independence.

Alex Salmond and his justice minister have stuck faithfully to the Crown Office line that nothing is amiss with Megrahi’s conviction. The longer they maintain this fiction, the greater the scandal they are creating for themselves. Sooner or later they will have to explain why they ignored all the warnings that their cherished system got things very wrong. They would do well to start working on their explanations now.


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