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We were wrong about Megrahi – for all the right reasons.

Sometimes in life, you just have to admit that you got it wrong. With hindsight it was a mistake to release the Lockerbie bomber Adelbasset ali al Megrahi on compassionate grounds in 2009. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, did the right thing by the tenets of Scots law. He thought long and hard and, on the basis of medical advice that al Megrahi had three months to live, he made the wrong call. So did I, by the way, so I’m not exercising 20/20 hindsight here.

Why was it wrong? First of all, because of the impact on the Lockerbie victims’ families, who have had to endure two years of seeing al Megrahi celebrated as a national hero by Col Gaddafi’s murderous regime in Tripoli. He has become a potent symbol of defiance by the regime against Western “imperialism”. He was paraded again this week in the latest show of strength by the Libyan dictator. Of course, we didn’t know in 2009 that we would be at war, effectively, with Gaddafi but Megrahi has now turned into a major propaganda asset for the enemy.

Damage has also  been done to Scotland’s image in America and the rest of the world and it has made our justice system look absurd. Kenny MacAskill took guidance on Scots law on compassionate release, but he was not bound to follow it. In retrospect he should have said that this involved such an exceptional crime, under such extraordinary circumstances, that it would be morally deficient, if legally correct, to release him from jail. Megrahi could have been allowed compassionate time with his family in Scotland, while still a prisoner.

And yes, I realise that there were serious doubts about al Megrahi’s guilt. The key prosecution witness, Tony Gauchi, was allegedly paid $2m by the US authorities. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Board appeared minded to give him another appeal. But the fact remains that he was convicted by the judges in Camp Zeist in a fair trial; found guilty of the worst terrorist single atrocity in British history. That stands. 

Megrahi’s release also fuelled the conspiracy stories that, for some reason, Alex Salmond had become Tony Blair’s bum boy and had agreed to spring the Lockerbie bomber so that BP could get its hands on Libyan oil. The infamous “deal in the desert” did involve a prisoner transfer agreement , though the Scottish government had no involvement in that, and did not repatriate him under any kind of guidance from London. It was, as Salmond said, a Scottish decision taken in Scotland. The wrong one – albeit for the right reasons.

Many are now saying much the same about the West’s military support for the rebel cause. And it has to be said that the decision to provide air support to the pro-democracy forces hasn’t worked out as planned. Six months on there is stalemate in Libya and a weakening of resolve among the European powers who authorised it. America is standing aside from this one, having made two expensive mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is Europe’s mess – specifically David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mess – and it is up to us to sort it out.

If it can be sorted. It is beginning to look as if partition of Libya might be the end result, which is desperately unfortunate, not least for the Libyan people left living in the rubble. Partition will be challenged on both sides – rather as it was in Northern Ireland, though with a lot more fire-power. Gaddafi will not rest until he has conquered the East, killed the rebels and laid waste to the city of Benghazi. He clearly has the money to do it, claims to have armed a million of his supporters, and will use any weapons at his disposal – many sold to him by France and Britain – to extinguish this rebellion. This means that the West cannot pull out, much as it would like to.

This week, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague announced, out of the blue, that he could foresee a settlement with Gaddafi remaining in Libya. This has horrified the rebels an international jurists who believe that the dictator should be indicted for war crimes. You only needed to see this week’s mass rallies in Tripoli, with our friend al Megrahi in the celebrity enclosure, to see that Gaddafi remains a potent force in his own tribal fiefdom. Many of those cheering may have been doing so out of fear – but the fact is they are out there, and Gaddafi is arming them. We can no longer hold to the fiction that the Libyan dictator is fighting his war with mercenaries alone. The idea that Gaddafi would retire peacefully to “Dun-dictating” to sit out his remaining years in peace is laughable.

Was the subsequent expelling of Libyan diplomats from London an attempt by Hague, realising his mistake, to recapture the initiative? Probably. It doesn’t make a huge deal of sense to expel Gaddafi’s diplomatic corps if you are trying to broker some kind of deal with him. Nasty lot they may be, and up to no good. But diplomats from hostile powers are there for a purpose – and that is to channel communications. Mr Hague appears to have gained his mojo but lost his marbles.

But it was still the right to support the rebellion in March. Had it not been for Western air power, Gaddafi would have used his heavy weapons relentlessly against Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. We could not stand by and allow a massacre to happen on the other side of the Mediterranean from Europe’s holiday beaches. It would have been the Guernica of our generation, and Western leaders were right to act, even if the outcome was not what they wished.

If Gaddafi is allowed to prevail, we can say farewell to the “Arab Spring”, or the “North African Spring”, or any kind of democratic thawing of the dictatorships that have kept that part of the world living in fear and servitude for so many years. The secret policemen and the torturers would sleep peacefully in their beds again. So, as Churchill said, sometimes the only course of action is what he called KBO – “keep buggering on”. As with Megrahi, you make your decision, and have to live with the consequences, right or wrong.   

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


17 thoughts on “We were wrong about Megrahi – for all the right reasons.

  1. But if they had kept him incarcerated he would be dead by now – and he would have died with a big question mark over his guilt. It matters not whether he is really innocent or guilty – and the chances are we will never know. The Lockerbie bombing is still a conspiracy theorist's wet dream – and if he had refused the application Kenny MacAskill would now be portrayed as a spineless puppet who left an innocent man to rot and die (at the behest of the Americans probably), instead of a chump who let out a dying man who persists in not dying.There were no good options really.

    Posted by Indy | August 2, 2011, 2:43 pm
  2. You quoted Churchill, but what about his famous one about Russia being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The same could be said about Libya,Gadaffi,Lockerbie,Megrahi, The armed insurrection by the rebels,Conspiracy theories abound and no one has a complete handle on the truth.The so called rebels, who incidentally, must be the First to have a Central bank up and running in such a short time in the de-facto capital Bengazi. It could be that Gadaffi like Saddam -Hussein posed an imminent threat to the wests financial stability by proposing to trade oil in a newly created gold Dinar- and like Saddam Hussein would have to be dealt with.I don't agree that Gadaffi would have obliterated Bengazi, Kosovo style. Like the mass rapes his side have supposed to have perpetrated there has been found to be no proof that it actually happened-that's not to say the perpetrators of the insurrection would be dealt with. Anyway, there are suppressed media stories of rebel atrocities committed against Gadaffi Supporters.You're correct about the mess will was created by Cameron and sarkozy,who must have hoped to have victory celebrations by Bastille day. The Europeans have shown themselves inept at running the bombing campaign, with reliance on the united States for it's continuation. It could lead to partition, or a long drawn out campaign Vietnam style, with the Chinese and Russians supplying and supporting Gadaffi.Kenny Macaskill applied the correct interpretation of Scots Law for a man terminally ill. Thats good enough for me, even with the political furore its caused. From the Scottish Governments point of view its a pity Megraghi hasn't fulfilled his of the bargain and met his maker- satisfying the vengeance seekers. I would have liked to have seen his appeal go through with all the spurious evidence of the initial case questioned -but we can't have that , can we?

    Posted by Anonymous | August 2, 2011, 4:06 pm
  3. Decision theory teaches us that there is no such thing as a 'right' decision at the time it is made – only subsequent events can validate it. To that degree, Iain Macwhirter's analysis is valid.But the reality is that few would now be raking over theses coals if Megrahi had obligingly died after three months. The reason he is still alive is probably that fact that those violently opposed to his release having been willing him to live so they could be proved right.I know within my own family and friends of more than one case where someone remained alive more than two years after the best medical prognostication gave them three months to live.Kenny MacAskill made the right decision in relation to the evidence available to him at the time, and more importantly, he didn't 'take the boy's gate', as more expedient politicians like Hague and Cameron would undoubtedly have done – he knew his reputation and perhaps the electoral success of his party were on the line, yet he took the principled, human route. And the Scottish electorate understood – or didn't care, depending on how you analyse it.Just what does Iain Macwhirter think he has added to the debate by this easy, wise-after-the-event piece?

    Posted by Moridura | August 3, 2011, 9:06 am
  4. I'll post below the email I sent you when this was first published in the Herald Iain. I can't believe you wrote that article personally. "The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Board appeared minded to give him another appeal. But the fact remains that he was convicted by the judges in Camp Zeist in a fair trial; found guilty of the worst terrorist single atrocity in British history. That stands." Good heavens Iain what has happened to you? We know he was convicted. That isn't news but you write as if an appeal system doesn't exist and you ignore completely the reasons why the SCCRC, and independent judicial body, reached their conclusions about a number of years studying this case at the cost of almost £1 million. Don't you want the truth about Lockerbie? Being a journalist why would you not want the truth about it given almost three hundred people died? This isn't about mere opinions. This is about wanting to get to the truth and having the courage to address every doubt raised. Of course the verdict still stands: but only because the political and legal establishments did not allow the Appeal to be heard. As a journalist yourself that should worry you. Megrahi got a fair trial? You're joking. Have you actually taken the trouble to read the transcripts from it? If not I've enclosed a link. The SCCRC wasn't just "minded" to "give him another appeal", he was waiting for that appeal to be heard even when his cancer was first found. The SCCRC made its view known in June 2007. It found SIX grounds to suggest a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. The appeal was delayed by the Scottish Judiciary for more than two years from June 2007. Furthermore Mr MacAskill personally stopped the SCCRC from issuing its report by imposing "consents" via a Statutory Instrument. Why would he do that? Why would any "Justice" Secretary not want that report published when at the root of it was the biggest loss of life seen in peacetime? These are the questions I would expect journalists to ask and demand answers to.

    Posted by Jo G | August 3, 2011, 8:16 pm
  5. Two Maltese witnesses were paid, (after a guilty verdict) $3 million between them by the US Authorities for testimony which, in court, suggested the date they claimed Megrahi bought those clothes he wasn't even on Malta. Are you actually ok with the paying of witnesses such vast sums because under Scots Law it is bribery and had the judges known about it their testimony would not have been accepted. Weather reports supported the problem with the dates. There was a break in at Heathrow Airport on the morning of the day Pan Am 103 went down. News of that break in was withheld from the trial by the UK government. The Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, even tried to withhold from the judges the contents of cables exchanged between the US Security Services and the prosecution. He lied to judges, saying there was nothing in the cables of interest to the defence. In fact the contents, when revealed, exposed the fact that one other witness was actually in the pay of the US Security Services! Imagine the Lord Advocate, of all people, lying to judges. Air Malta produced documentation showing that every bag to travel on the flight from Luqa was accompanied and accounted for at Frankfurt. There were no unaccompanied bags. The judges chose to disregard this. Megrahi could have been released on compassionate grounds and the Appeal retained and heard. He had remained determined his appeal would be heard until the last minute when it was dropped. We still don't know why that was or what he was told. He was already very ill by then. Who told him if he didn't drop the appeal he couldn't go home? Was it the Scottish Authorities or was it the Libyan Authorities (having agreed to do this during the dirty little deals in the desert with Blair) so as not to risk Megrahi being acquitted if the Appeal was heard and those six grounds could no longer be ignored? Far better a compromise: release him on compassionate grounds but release him as a guilty man still and avoid the political carnage that would result from an acquittal and the truth that we convicted the wrong guy. We should all have wanted that Appeal heard and no one more than our journalists surely? The media covered the event wall to wall at the time. Surely the emergence of a report like that produced by the SCCRC, raising six grounds to suggest a miscarriage may have occurred, should have had a responsible media demanding the Appeal be heard as a matter of urgency given the number of lives lost? Surely honest politicians who actually cared about the identity of those who killed so many people would have wanted the same? Anyway, I won't go on. I just felt I had to express my shock at the approach you've taken in this article you've done in the Herald on Megrahi and his release. I expect better from you. The facts to support the belief that Megrahi's conviction was indeed unsafe are there: sadly Mr Salmond and Mr MacAskill are still dragging their heels in allowing them to be made public.

    Posted by Jo G | August 3, 2011, 8:18 pm
  6. Anonymous:the thing about the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission is that it doesn't do conspiracy theories, it deals in evidence. It found SIX grounds to suggest that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred at Megrahi's trial. IndyIt matters very much to many who lost relatives at Lockerbie "whether he was really innocent or guilty."It matters also to those of us who happen to feel deeply ashamed of a Scottish "Justice" system that is a disgrace. If anything proves that statement it is this case. Professor Koechler, the UN Observer at the original trial said, of the Scottish Judiciary who repeatedly delayed Megrahi's second appeal, that those within it were themselves involved in conduct that "was tantamount to the obstruction of justice." There was indeed a "good option". Megrahi's appeal should have been heard. It was the only just option. It was an option the political and judicial establishments were not prepared to give, not just Megrahi, but any of us.

    Posted by Jo G | August 3, 2011, 8:34 pm
  7. And isn't Ronnie Biggs still alive?

    Posted by Jo G | August 3, 2011, 8:36 pm
  8. Joe J , A very compelling argument you put forward-and better written than mine.I absolutely agree that Megrahi's appeal should have been heard on the arguments you have propounded. Professor Koechler, was indeed critical of the “extrajudicial forces” influence i.e. intelligence services role in the trial proceedings. These same “extrajudicial forces” could, and possibly would, stop any appeal seeing the light of day on the basis of national security. I do concur that the SCCR only deal in evidence and not conspiracy theories, but the unfortunate truth is that justice may never see the light of day-feeding more conspiracy theories no doubt.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 3, 2011, 9:44 pm
  9. Joe J , A very compelling argument you put forward-and better written than mine.I absolutely agree that Megrahi's appeal should have been heard on the arguments you have propounded. Professor Koechler, was indeed critical of the “extrajudicial forces” influence i.e. intelligence services role influencing the trial proceedings. These same “extrajudicial forces” could, and possibly would, stop any appeal seeing the light of day on the basis of national security. I do concur that the SCCR only deal in evidence and not conspiracy theories, but the unfortunate truth is that justice may never see the light of day-feeding more conspiracy theories no doubt.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 3, 2011, 9:47 pm
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Posted by Jo G | August 4, 2011, 7:41 pm
  11. Anon………maybe we need our own Scottish Spring. Thank you for your response. There was a time Iain was asking the questions I am, along with Ian Bell. I am sorry to the heart that he wrote this article. Alex Salmond has recently taken an aggressive approach on the Supreme Court matter. And yet, the case on which that particular decision was based is yet another where the Scottish Judiciary is itself in the dock. Two appeals by Fraser had failed to expose a decision, by someone in the PF's office, to ignore precognition statements by Police Officers in the original trial. The Court of Appeal is meant to scrutinise the original proceedings. In Fraser's two appeals they failed to do so. Which leads me to think that the Scottish Judiciary functions on the myth (I won't say principle as principles, to me, are honourable things) that Scottish Courts don't make mistakes. That is a dangerous way to approach the issue of justice, to say the least. Fraser thinks he's hard done by? He should try being Megrahi.

    Posted by Jo G | August 4, 2011, 7:51 pm
  12. This piece sounds like a rather lame attempt to defend NATO actions in Libya on the somewhat suspect grounds that if Kenny McAskill can make a mistake, anyone can. Mission creep in Libya, i.e. action beyond that authorised by the UN, was widely predicted in many quarters – it was no honest error, visible only to your '20/20 hindsight'. What Vaclav Havel memorably called 'humanitarian bombing' is always as absurd and wicked as it sounds.Anyway, Megrahi's health had nothing to do with the decision to release him and everything to do with the can of worms that would be opened if his appeal had proceeded. A word of warning about conpiracy theories – they're usually a good deal nearer the truth than the 'news' from the Herald or the BBC.

    Posted by Vronsky | August 7, 2011, 8:59 am
  13. Nice post Vronsky. The shock for me is that Iain MacWhirter wrote this piece. : (

    Posted by Jo G | August 7, 2011, 4:21 pm
  14. The sad fact about PAN AM flight 103 is that it was never part of the plan that it blow up over Scotland.Better it be brought down well out into the northern atlantic in international waters where evidence leading to the perpetrators would be difficult to come by.If Megrahi had any part in it, he was a mere pawn in the scheme of things, blackmailed or bribed, perhaps, into 'following instructions', the implications of which, he was not privy to.No, I put my money on a programme put out by the BBC, sometime after the event, which focussed its attention on 1st class passengers who were booked onto the flight but did not, in the end, fly. Among them, at least, one highly-placed politician.If we want to find out the truth about the downing of PAN AM 103, I suggest we go back to the incident in the Persian Gulf when an Iranian civil passenger aircraft was shot down by a gung-ho captain of an American destroyer. And take it from there.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 7, 2011, 4:47 pm
  15. Dear Mr McWhirter,This is an utterly dreadful piece and you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself for writing it. If this is your standard of political analysis it is so shamefully low you should be fired.The US Government and its agencies went out of their way to destroy the Scottish legal, administrative and political system to ensure the election of the second worst President in that dreadful country’s history.When Reagan went gag in 1987, VP Bush moved swiftly to seize effective power and end Reagan’s dangerously stupid foreign policy. That meant ending the cosy Iran-Contra relationship including killing the gofer at the Iranian end, Ahmad Beladi Behbehani. So IR655 was deliberately targeted and shot down by the USS Vincennes on 3rd July 1988, intending the kill the man of that name. Unfortunately it was another family with the same relatively rare name in the same unusual spelling. This was reported by Lara Marlowe (better correspondent than you), but the issue was suppressed by a craven US press.The fact came out just last year when Marlowe produced her collected pieces and the matter of the death of a child named Leila Behbehani on the plane was reported in the Irish Times and on Black’s Blog, but by the time I got my hard copy of the book it had been carelessly edited to deny the girl was Iranian.Unfortunately, the CIA doesn’t realise that what has once been said cannot be unsaid.Iran demand according to their own legal code, which I am sure you are familiar with blood, an exact measure for the 254 Iranians who died on IR655.It took them and the US Government 4 sessions to negotiate it. I even known the names of some of the delegates.The target aircraft became PA103, a battered old war horse of a plane (has no one ever speculated why the Lockerbie plane was so old?) and the plot was based in Frankfurt and London. The CIA HQ for Iran was in Frankfurt at the time. The UK was used probably because it was a soft touch for the Americans and the Thatcher government owed them a good deal over the Falklands.The CIA gave Ahamd Beladi Behbehani an IED which mimicked a PFLP GC production to blow up PA103. For their part the Psdaran knew it wasn’t big enough so souped it up. That is why the nose ended up at Tundegarth miles away from the rest of the aircraft.What the Iranians did realise that the CIA knew the IED wasn’t big enough to blow up PA103, which you will remember, had been strengthened in the CRAF program. So the ICIA caused an Iranian stringer of theirs at Frankfurt Airport a Parviz Taheri to give Captain Curry a 20kg or so bomb. You can check all this by looking at the damage model of Pan Am 103 in the AAIB report. I’ll willingly come and discuss it with you.The IED which was introduced by the Manly break-in at Heathrow Airport between 23.00 and 24.00 on 20 December 1988 was stuck on the side of AVE4041 PA. It was exploded by an atmospheric trigger that the PFLP GC had used, but this mimicked a PFLP GC one.Don’t ask the the silly question surely it was a PFLP GC bomb then. Sunnis do not take in Shia dirty washing – rather like asking the PIRA to carry out a UVF killing.Seven seconds after this bomb exploded a CIA agent (I can guess the name) triggered the 20kg package bomb using a pager, starting seven seconds after the secondary radar signal had failed and of which Alan Topp memorably said “I’ve lost the Maid”.After that it was only necessary to scew up the investigation deflecting it from a Syrian based group to Libya, fine the Libyans billions of dollars.By the way my brother was killed by Libyan terrorism on 19 September 1989 on UT-772.Please withdraw your shameful piece.

    Posted by Charles | August 7, 2011, 5:11 pm
  16. Charles"The US Government and its agencies went out of their way to destroy the Scottish legal, administrative and political system." The US Government could not possibly have "destroyed the Scottish legal, administrative and political" systems. Get a grip. Along with the UK government at the time all of the bodies you mention were all willing to comply.

    Posted by Jo G | August 7, 2011, 8:51 pm
  17. The evidence against Megrahi was rubbish and he should never have been found guilty. The judges themselves were not informed of all the facts and the facts themselves were highly questionable.The Americans can suck on it since their international reputation currently stinks, Scotland will take no lessons from them.

    Posted by Stevie | August 8, 2011, 3:09 pm

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