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The sordid cynical international power play which led to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

John Aston looks at the role played by Kenny Macaskill in the cynical international power play which led to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person to be convicted for the Lockerbie  bombing atrocity which brought flight Pan Am Flight 103 down.

Funeral of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi who was found guilty of Lockerbie atrocity.
In 2009 fate elected Kenny MacAskill for public crucifixion. He was given a choice of two crosses: the first was to release the terminally ill 'Lockerbie bomber’ Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and unleash upon himself the combined fury of the press, the SNP’s political opponents and (most of) the Lockerbie victims’ relatives; the second was to allow Megrahi to die in prison and provoke Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya into massive economic retaliation against the UK. In the end, of course, he chose the first option – Megrahi got his freedom and BP got its deal in the desert.

The former Scottish justice secretary’s long-awaited valedictory has landed with a splash in his book 'The Lockerbie Bombing: the search for justice' (Biteback Publishing). Mr MacAskill has an important tale to tell about Lockerbie – the inside track on a cynical international power play in which the Scottish Government was both pawn and fall guy.

His account of the fire storm that engulfed him during those summer weeks tells us little that we didn’t know or hadn’t already divined. Still, it’s good to have his account of how the UK government hung him out to dry and to have confirmation that the US government’s full-throated public outrage was in private half-hearted. It’s also good to be reminded of the pathetic posturing of Scottish Labour, who feigned outrage at a decision that their Westminster overlords had been praying for.

The only significant revelation in this part of the book, which is hardly earth-shattering, is that the Scottish Government tried to squeeze some minor concessions from the UK government in return for doing its bidding. And why not?

If Mr MacAskill had limited his account to the political drama surrounding Megrahi’s release, it would likely have passed by with a nod. However, he does much more, answering, according to the book’s cover, 'how and why [the bombing] happened – and who was really responsible’. His answer to the last question is Megrahi, Gaddafi and a coalition of others who slipped through the net.

Why bother playing detective? Because, it seems, his mission is not only to justify his own actions and that of the government he served, but also to restore the reputation of the country’s criminal justice system, that totem of the independence he craves.

And, my word, has he made a pig’s ear of it. His defence of the system is, for the most part, bluster founded upon a hodgepodge of baseless assertions, factual errors, and omissions. Crucially, however, in a single sentence he makes a startling concession that knocks the stuffing out of Mehrahi’s conviction – more of which later.

Before the substance, though, a word about style. It might seem petty to dwell on the book’s stylistic flaws, but they are too glaring to be ignored. I have seldom read anything quite so arduous. It is so badly written that at times it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Such is his overuse of the passive voice that it should sue him for burnout. On page after page he serves up such gloop as 'Further pressure would have mounted on Libya and perhaps even Gaddafi himself if not nominals in his stead'. Biteback Publishing, what were you thinking? Do you not employ editors? His occasional attempts to leaven the story with personal anecdotes, like adding treacle to congealed porridge, make the going no easier.

The tone is that of a local bank manager’s self-published memoir: pompous, platitudinous, patronising, portentous, and Pooterish. Sometimes it’s pointless too. For instance, having bumbled on for a paragraph about the 1953 Great North Sea Flood and the loss of the ship the Princess Victoria, he delivers the almost-beyond-parody payoff: 'The town of Lockerbie was inland, however, and insulated from any damage'.

Such clumsiness isn’t always amusing. His account of the immediate aftermath of the bombing is, in places, particularly insensitive, dwelling on gruesome details that many of the victims’ relatives might find upsetting.

At times it reads like a first draft rambled into a dictaphone. For example, within the space of a page he tells us that 'Scotland was not a place where people lived in fear of their lives or endured terrorist attacks’ and 'terrorism happened, but not in Scotland, or so it had been assumed'.

The one positive about the style is that it might put people off reading the garbage that Mr MacAskill attempts to pass off. His submission, in essence, is that the Scottish criminal justice system did a sterling job and got the right man, even though others, including his Libyan masters, got away with it.

The case against that man, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, articulated by the three law lords who convicted him, was that on the morning of 21 December 1988, while at Malta’s Luqa airport, he managed to place on board an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt an unaccompanied Samsonite suitcase containing a radio-cassette bomb. At Frankfurt, they said, the case was transferred to a feeder flight to Heathrow, where it was loaded on to the targeted Pan Am flight 103.

The case was largely circumstantial, with only two things directly implicating Megrahi in the bombing: his presence at Luqa that morning and the evidence of Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who said that Megrahi resembled a man who had bought in his shop the clothes that ended up in the bomb suitcase. As the judges noted, key strands of the Crown case were weak, but they concluded that, when taken together, they formed 'a real and convincing pattern’. The Gauci identification, such as it was, was easily the most important strand. As the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission noted when it referred Megrahi’s conviction to the appeal court in 2007, without it, the conviction fell.

The weakness of the identification evidence is well known: Gauci described the clothes buyer as far older and bigger than Megrahi, while other evidence suggests the purchase took place when Megrahi was not in Malta. Mr MacAskill accepts this, then goes further, stating baldly: 'Clothes in the suitcase that carried the bomb were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi'. Though he doesn’t say it directly, this is an admission that the conviction was unsafe. In TV interviews on the day of publication, he conceded that it probably was.

This matters because of another sentence, stated equally baldly by the Scottish Government when Mr MacAskill was justice secretary and Alex Salmond, who fully endorses the book, was first minister: 'The Scottish Government does not doubt the safety of the conviction'. If as justice secretary, Mr MacAskill accepted that Megrahi was not the clothes purchaser, then why did he support a government position that he knew to be false? And, if he has reached that conclusion in the two years since he left office, then what evidence is he party to, which we are not, that has caused him to change his mind? These urgent questions he has so far failed to answer.

Having conceded that Megrahi was not the clothes purchaser, Mr MacAskill battles on gamely in the last chapter to argue that he was guilty anyway and that so too was his co-accused Lamin Fhimah. It’s here where the wheels really come off. I lost count of the number of inaccuracies, omissions and unsupported statements crammed into these few pages.

He could have easily checked his facts with a bit of googling or by reading some of the many books that are available. I counted seven serious errors in the first extract of the book serialised in the Sunday Times. It’s especially galling that he didn’t properly read my Megrahi biography, which unlike his book, is fully referenced. Remarkably, he attributes to it a claim that Megrahi did not make, namely that he could not recall why he travelled to Malta the evening before the bombing. (His recollection is on page 110.)

His disinclination towards fact-checking is coupled with an appetite for unlikely claims based on flaky sources. For example, he resurrects a bizarre story that Colonel Gaddafi privately admitted responsibility for Lockerbie. The evidence, an ambiguous quote attributed to Gaddafi in a 2004 article in the Washington Times. He omits to mention that the author was the paper’s former editor Arnaud de Borchgrave, a proudly pro-CIA right-wing ideologue whose dedication to the US cause extended, in the 1980s, to helping raise funds for the White House’s favourite terrorists, the Nicaraguan Contras.

He reminds us that shortly after the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011 a Swedish newspaper reported that the leader of the National Transitional Council, Gaddafi’s former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, claimed to have proof that Gaddafi had ordered Lockerbie. He fails to mention that Jalil later said the paper had misquoted him and that the best he could offer as evidence was the widely known fact that the Gaddafi regime had funded Megrahi’s legal case. Neither does he mention that the NTC’s first interim justice minister, Mohamed al-Alagi, publicly stated that Megrahi was innocent.

He reheats the claim, first made about two years after Lockerbie, that the Libyans took up the reins after the original suspects, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, had their plane bombing plans stymied by a German police operation. The group had been hired by the Iranian government to avenge the 290 victims of Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by a US battlecruiser six months before Lockerbie. Nice theory and one I don’t completely rule out, but what hard evidence can he muster to support it? None.

However, he lets slip an important nugget of information: King Hussein of Jordan wrote to UK prime minister John Major implicating the PFLP-GC in the bombing. Previously a state secret, the letter’s non-disclosure to the defence was one of the grounds upon which the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s granted Megrahi his second appeal against conviction. The UK government barred the SCCRC from revealing its contents and foreign secretary David Miliband issued a public interest immunity certificate to prevent its disclosure to the appeal lawyers.

Mr MacAskill can’t see what all the fuss was about. The letter, he tells us, was sent soon after Lockerbie, when the PFLP-GC were the only suspects, well before evidence emerged to implicate Megrahi and Libya. Except it wasn’t. During the second appeal it emerged that the document (the nature of which, owing to the PII certificate, was then unknown) dated from September 1996, seven years after the bombing. And if Mr MacAskill had bothered to google John Major, he would have been reminded that he became prime minister in November 1990, by which time the Libyans were firmly in the frame.

Perhaps mindful of the scorn his threadbare case might attract, Mr MacAskill tells us that it is founded not only on the evidence gathered for the trial, but also 'on intelligence and sources not available for a court or that have only come to light thereafter'. Guess what: intelligence can be wrong and sometimes intelligence agencies make things up. And, by the way, there are plenty of intelligence sources that implicate the PFLP-GC and Iran but not Libya.

The only notable evidence of Megrahi’s involvement to come to light since the trial was that unearthed by American filmmaker Ken Dornstein (whom Mr MacAskill does not have the courtesy to name), which showed that Megrahi had concealed an apparently close association with an alleged bomb-maker called Abu Agila Masud, with whom he travelled to Malta on the day before the bombing.

As I have argued previously in the Scottish Review, the conclusions that Mr Dornstein drew from that evidence are knocked down by other evidence that has emerged since the conviction. This includes scientific evidence that proved that, contrary to the Crown case, the key forensic evidence, a fragment of circuit board found among the bomb debris, did not match boards in Libyan bomb timers. It also includes the meticulous analysis by Scottish researcher Dr Morag Kerr, which demonstrates that the Lockerbie bomb originated from Heathrow, rather than Malta. None of this is acknowledged by Mr MacAskill, let alone addressed.

The book’s greatest omission is its failure to acknowledge the very Scottish scandal that lies at the heart of the Megrahi case, namely the Crown’s failure to disclose multiple items of exculpatory evidence. We shouldn’t be surprised, because the Scottish Government that he served amplified the scandal by failing to order an inquiry into the Crown’s conduct. (He repeats the government-spun fiction that any inquiry would need to be multi-jurisdictional.) To make matters worse, when the Justice for Megrahi campaign committee sent to him in confidence allegations of criminal misconduct and requested that he appoint an independent investigator to examine them, without consulting them he passed them to the Crown Office, which immediately – and outrageously – dismissed them. Thankfully, Police Scotland took a different view and is now in the third year of a major investigation of the allegations.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by Mr MacAskill’s sidestepping of inconvenient facts – he is a lawyer and politician, and that’s what lawyers and politicians do. Far more surprising is his reliance upon hand-me-down hearsay and pure speculation. There are pages of the stuff. For example, he tells it is 'certain’ that Lamin Fhimah arrived at Malta’s Luqa airport with Megrahi on the morning of the bombing. There is simply no evidence for this. None.

Most jaw dropping is his account of the evidence of the CIA’s Libyan supergrass Majid Giaka, who was the only witness to implicate Fhimah in the bombing, and who was exposed at trial as a money-grabbing fantasist. Among Majid’s baseless claims, made two-and-a-half years after Lockerbie, was that Megrahi had arrived at Luqa airport with a Samsonite suitcase like the one used for the bombing. Having acknowledged that Majid’s evidence was dismissed by the judges, Mr MacAskill counters with: 'Majid is clearly tainted, but some of his evidence has the ring of truth about it'. In the very next sentence, the ring of truth has been forged into cast iron fact: 'Megrahi came in [to Malta] with the Samsonite suitcase and Fhimah accompanied him to escort him through the airport'. What has the greater ring of truth, I would suggest, is the manifest truth from the Air Malta flight that Megrahi took to Malta, which indicates that neither he nor Fhimah had a suitcase. But why let the facts get in the way of a convenient fiction?

Allow me to round off with a little MacAskillesque guesswork. His Megrahi-wasn’t-the-clothes-buyer-but-did-it-anyway line has such a bloke-in-the-pub-told-me feel to it that I would not be surprised if it had been fed to him by a police officer or prosecutor. Some of those responsible for the conviction must accept that Megrahi probably wasn’t the clothes purchaser. They have had years to construct an alternative narrative that salvages their honour by keeping him in the frame. Maybe one of them was happy to share it with the ex-justice minister – it would have saved him the bother of having to do proper research (which clearly he didn’t).

I don’t doubt that Mr MacAskill is a decent man, who tried to do his best in near-impossible circumstances. It’s a pity that his tartan-tinted spectacles blinded him to much of the mess that litters the Lockerbie case. Still he will, at least, now be remembered, not only as the man who freed Megrahi, but also as the first member of the Scottish establishment to break rank on Megrahi’s conviction. For that we should be grateful.

First published in the Scottish Review.

This post first appeared on ORGANIZED RAGE, please read the originial post: here

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The sordid cynical international power play which led to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.


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