Early February 2011 saw fresh light thrown on the UK Government’s negotiations with Libya in the years before the Scottish Government decided on compassionate grounds to release from Greenock Prison the only man ever convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al Megrahi. It became clear that the UK Government had done as much as it could to promote Megrahi’s release; but there was no evidence that the Scottish Government decision had resulted from UK Government pressure.
The major insight was provided by a report from UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell published on 7 February, who at the Prime Minister’s order had conducted an inquiry into the previous Government’s negotiations with Libya between 2004 and 2009. Better relations with Libya had been sought to promote British commercial interests in the country, in particular those of BP. By 2008 it was clear that the release of Megrahi was a sine qua non for the Libyans, and from then on the UK Government did all it could to facilitate an appeal by Libya to the Scottish Government under either the UK-Libya Prisoner Transfer Agreement or the compassionate release legislation. But there was no evidence that the UK Government had put pressure on the Scottish Government to agree to any release. O’Donnell’s inquiry had however investigated only UK government papers and not the records of the Scottish Government.
There was also a release of Scottish Government papers which led to a small row in some parts of the media as to whether or not the Scottish Government had attempted to strike a bargain with the UK Government in which Megrahi would be released in return for some legislative measures for Scotland. Whether or not there was such an attempt, Megrahi was released and there were no known concessions to the Scottish Government from Whitehall or Westminster then or afterwards. Scots Law News suspects that there were some interesting intra-governmental conversations but doubts very much whether the Scottish Government would have thrown away anything it regarded as a bargaining card.
Interesting if less significant light came from a Wikileak release of a US diplomatic cable showing that more than a year before Megrahi’s release, in 2008, the UK was briefing the US on various ways in which the release might take place under either the PTA or the compassionate release legislation. Again therefore it was clear that the release when it came did not hit the US Government as a bolt from the blue.
None of this changes the Scots Law News view, expressed just after the release, that doing so was indeed a political decision, but not for the reasons claimed by the political opponents of the Scottish Government. Scottish Labour’s attempts to pin moral blame for the decision entirely on their SNP opponents look clumsy and naive indeed given what was, even at the time, the perfectly obvious interest of their London big brothers in having UK-Libya relations improved by Megrahi’s return to his homeland.
Meantime on 25 January the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee more or less gave up on its attempt to get the Scottish Government to hold an inquiry into all aspects of the Lockerbie case but sent more questions, to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, the Lord Advocate and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, producing an interesting set of replies shortly afterwards. The SCCRC indicated its view that it could reopen a case in which, like Megrahi’s, an appeal had been abandoned; the Lord Advocate confirmed that the Crown Office has never held the view that Megrahi acted alone and that investigations of the bombing and other possible perpetrators were still open; and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice pointed out that the remit of the Carloway inquiry into criminal procedure and evidence following the Cadder case includes a review of the Criminal Procedure (Legal Assistance, Detention and Appeals) Act 2010 (which has been seen by some as severely restricting the power of the SCCRC to refer cases to the High Court of Justiciary).
As all this was going on, the people of Northern Africa began to rise against their governments, and Tunisia and Egypt found themselves suddenly moving into a new era which, they perhaps fondly hoped, would be a bit more democratic than the previous ones. Nearby Libya proved not to be immune to the popular tide; but the government of Colonel Gaddafi emerged as altogether more resistant to such change than its Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, even after NATO and UN intervention in effect on the side of the rebels. There were some defections from Gaddafi’s side, however; notably his Justice Minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil (who claimed to have evidence that implicated Gaddafi as having ordered the Lockerbie bombing), and the Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa. The latter was interviewed by Dumfries & Galloway police and Crown Office officials on 4 April in connection with the Lockerbie case (see here), but no further information emerged in public, at least, and Koussa went on his way, having been granted access to funds he held in Europe that had been frozen as part of the sanctions against the Gaddafi regime.
As for Megrahi himself, he remains obdurately alive, although reports vary between saying that he is all but at death’s door or is likely to live for many years yet. There are also claims that he is due to move into a new house being built for him in Tripoli. How his interests might be affected if Gaddafi is overthrown is unclear; this interesting BBC report includes the information that Megrahi’s tribe, the Magariha, is at odds with the Qadhadfa tribe from which Gadaffi comes, at least within the Libyan armed forces. Perhaps a Scottish safe haven may yet come to have its attractions.