The Political Trials of Lockerbie

‘Megrahi's terminal cancer was good news to everyone but him’

The release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in August allowed everyone to blame everyone else for freeing the Lockerbie bomber. But it also demonstrated what short memories people have these days.

In the United States, critics from President Barack Obama to the New York Daily News blamed the British Prime Minister for allowing Megrahi to return to Libya. In response, Gordon Brown pointed out that the decision to free Megrahi on compassionate grounds had been taken by the Scottish government under devolved powers. The Scottish National Party, which heads the minority government in Edinburgh, blamed the Labour government at Westminster. And the Scottish Parliament condemned the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, for mishandling the situation. 

In a case like this, conspiracy theories abound. So let’s start with some facts. In 2001, Megrahi was convicted of killing the 270 people who died when a suitcase-bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. His co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was cleared by the three trial judges: uniquely, there was no jury. Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment, the mandatory sentence for even a single murder. But what was extraordinary was the minimum period, or “tariff”, that the Scottish judges recommended Megrahi should serve before he could be considered for release. It was 20 years. Taking account of time spent on remand, he served half that period. My surprise at Megrahi’s 20-year tariff was not mitigated when the period was subsequently increased to 27 years. After all, the standard tariff under English law for murdering a single person by using an explosive is now 30 years. A single terrorist murder attracts a “whole-life tariff”, meaning that the prisoner would never normally be released. How could the terrorist murder of 270 people deserve anything less?

The straightforward answer is that the judges must have found mitigating circumstances: as an intelligence officer, Megrahi was presumably obeying orders. The conspiracy theorists would say that the judges implicitly acknowledged the well-rehearsed doubts over Megrahi’s guilt. Either way, we can infer that the Scottish courts did not intend him to die in prison. 

To that extent, MacAskill’s decision to free Megrahi on “compassionate” grounds — under powers granted by statute — can be seen as ensuring that the court’s intentions were realised. That there was doubt over Megrahi’s guilt is not open to question. His first appeal was dismissed in 2002. But in June 2007 his case was referred back to the appeal court by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.

That was on narrow grounds, involving identification evidence. But in several of the notorious English miscarriages of justice uncovered nearly two decades ago, the grounds on which cases were reopened proved to be much narrower than those on which the appeals were eventually granted. Although we shall never know, it strikes me as very likely that Megrahi’s appeal would have been allowed. This would have done far more damage to public confidence in Scottish justice than releasing a man to die of cancer.

But people have short memories. Some seem to have forgotten that prisoners are ever released on licence in Britain. I’m not just thinking of Ronnie Biggs, the train robber freed in England two weeks before Megrahi. Remember the Good Friday agreement, under which hundreds of paramilitary prisoners were freed in Northern Ireland some nine years ago? Governments decided that the move was justified by wider political advantages.

That, of course, was how Megrahi came to be convicted in the first place. He was tried under Scots law at a military base in the Netherlands: the only time that the ordinary courts of one country have sat in the territory of another to try the citizens of a third. 

The whole agreement under which he and his co-accused stood trial was a uniquely political event. Colonel Gaddafi’s willingness to sacrifice his senior officials, knowing that they might never be freed, shows how much importance he attached to normalising ties with Britain and the US.

And that is how it must have looked to Gordon Brown. Megrahi’s terminal cancer was good news for everyone but him. It enabled the Scots courts to avoid ruling that Megrahi should never have been convicted. And it allowed the Westminster government to reap the benefits of improved trade while maintaining that the decision was entirely out of its hands.

That’s politics for you. But, as in life, things don’t always turn out the way you
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