More confusion over the convicted ‘Lockerbie bomber’

Is there no end to the muddle and misrepresentations generated by the controversy over the release by the Scottish government in August 2009 on compassionate grounds  of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted (quite possibly wrongly) of responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing?  The Daily Telegraph is the latest source of misinformation, based on yet more US diplomatic cables that it has received from WikiLeaks (Mr Assange’s latest quarrel having apparently been with the Guardian, no longer favoured with new batches of WikiLeaks).  A Telegraph article on 31 January 2011 bore the sensational headline: “WikiLeaks cables reveal ‘cold, callous and brutal’ behaviour of ministers“, the first factual error:  the cables reveal nothing of the sort, and it emerges later that the source of the allegation about ministers’ behaviour is an understandable but hardly authoritative comment by the mother of an American victim of the Lockerbie bombing.

Although the headline’s assertion purports to be based on “WikiLeaks cables” (plural), it is clearly based on only one of them, which reveals very little information that has not been publicly available for a long time.  The article leans heavily on the assertion that “within a week of the diagnosis, Bill Rammell, a junior Foreign Office minister, had written to his Libyan counterpart advising him on how this could be used as the grounds of securing al-Megrahi’s compassionate release from prison.”  It’s clear from the actual text of the US cable, however, that the FCO was merely answering a Libyan government question about the procedure under Scottish law for applying for the compassionate release of a prisoner, information already in the public domain and of the kind routinely provided on request by one government to another.  The spin put on this by the Daily Telegraph article challenges one’s confidence in the objective reporting and reliability of a major quality newspaper.

On other issues raised in the article, we have known all along that the UK government, with its sole responsibility for Britain’s foreign affairs and trade, had conveyed its views on the pros and cons of releasing Megrahi to the Scottish government which in turn had the sole responsibility for deciding whether and if so when and on what basis to release him:  nothing remotely improper or surprising about that.  It has also been repeatedly reported that the question of Megrahi’s future was discussed with the Libyans in the context of Britain’s commercial relations with Libya by Tony Blair and Jack Straw among others, although always on the clear understanding that the decision on this would be taken solely by the Scottish government:  again, nothing new or improper in this even if it’s true.  The repeated use in the article of such phrases as “It can now be disclosed that…” is seriously misleading, whether attributable to ignorance of the issues or to an intention to give the false impression that the Telegraph and WikiLeaks were together uncovering some hitherto well concealed villainy.

The Telegraph article strongly implies that its revelations are drawn from “more than 480” US diplomatic cables now published on its website.  In fact an examination of these texts (available at shows that barely a handful of them concern Lockerbie or Megrahi, and of those which do, the majority are factual reports on the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds and on Megrahi’s return to Libya following his release.  These, incidentally, show that the Libyans did to some extent respond to President Obama’s appeal to the Libyans to treat Megrahi’s return in a low key, contrary to the impression given in the UK and US media.  They also make it clear that the vast majority of Libyans accepted their government’s assertion that Megrahi was innocent:  they were celebrating his return to his homeland as an unjustly convicted victim of a great injustice, not welcoming him as a terrorist bomber. The Daily Telegraph article does not report any of this.

Nor does the article mention the disclosure in the cables, which was new to me (but perhaps not to others?), that in appealing to the Libyans to play their welcome of Megrahi in a low key, the US administration, from the President down, also appealed to the Libyans to keep Megrahi in a Libyan prison, or at the least under house arrest, out of respect for the life sentence that had been passed on him — on the face of it a doomed suggestion which took no account either of the Libyans’ position on Megrahi’s innocence, nor of the decision of the Scottish government to set him free on health grounds, nor of most Libyans’ sympathy with Megrahi as an innocent man who was the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice — a view shared, incidentally, by a number of the relatives of the Lockerbie bombing victims and of respected Scottish and other legal authorities.  It’s a sound rule of diplomacy not to make demands of another government which have no prospect whatever of succeeding;  such demands can only give the impression of misjudgement and misunderstanding on the part of the demandeur.

The American appeal to the Libyans to keep Megrahi in detention after his return is also strangely at odds with the clear provision in the original agreement, formally approved by UN Security Council resolution, that the Lockerbie suspects (of whom Megrahi was one) should serve their sentences, if convicted, in the UK — in practice meaning in Scotland, since the trial and its aftermath were all conducted under Scottish law.  Not only would this have ruled out on legal as well as political grounds any idea of the Libyans locking up Megrahi to serve the rest of his sentence in a Libyan prison, as demanded by the Americans:  it would also have ruled out any idea of sending Megrahi back to Libya to serve out his sentence there under the UK-Libyan Prisoner Transfer Agreement, one of the options constantly discussed with the Libyans as if it was a possibility.  I have discussed this mystery more fully in an earlier post on this blog in July 2010 (see the sources cited there and also the important and authoritative comments appended to it by others), so there’s no need to go further into it here except to note that the WikiLeaked cables show no awareness of it, and neither does the Daily Telegraph article.

One other point of interest emerges from the WikiLeaked cables (also ignored by the Telegraph article):  the US embassy in Libya reports being told by its British colleagues that according to what the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, had told the UK government, the decision whether or not to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds would ultimately be taken by Salmond himself, not by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, whose responsibility it would ordinarily have been.  In the event both Salmond and MacAskill have emphasised that it was MacAskill who took the decision on Megrahi’s release and that he accepted the full responsibility for it, although Salmond has always supported it.  Of course the US report of what they thought they had been told by their British embassy colleagues may have been mistaken, or the FCO in London may have misunderstood what Salmond had told them, or Salmond may have changed his mind about who should take the decision.  But it’s an interesting and probably new snippet of information emerging from the leaked cables on this subject.

One indictment might however emerge from all this, although it’s doubtful whether there’s anything new in it.  Labour ministers privately assured both the Libyans and the Scottish government that they didn’t want Megrahi to die in prison and that they would favour his release, not least because his release would be helpful in the context of UK-Libyan commercial relations (a perfectly legitimate consideration, by the way, although not one that Scottish ministers could or would take into account in their decision on Megrahi’s release).  But my impression is that in public Blair, Straw and perhaps subsequently Gordon Brown opposed any decision to release “the Lockerbie bomber”, although perhaps only after the event.  (Can anyone produce chapter and verse for this?)  If so, this would have reflected a dilemma for any British government:  open support for Megrahi’s release would have been deeply offensive to American public opinion, to most American families of the Lockerbie victims (although not to all the British victims’ families), and to the US government and Congress. It would also have laid the UK government open to the accusation of improperly trying to influence a decision which belonged solely to Scottish ministers.  At the same time, releasing Megrahi was obviously in the legitimate commercial interests of the UK and UK ministers were fully entitled to make sure that the Scottish and Libyan governments knew it.  Certainly when David Cameron succeeded Gordon Brown as prime minister, he cheerfully joined President Obama in strongly denouncing the Scottish government’s decision.  No doubt at that early stage in his premiership he had no wish to anger the American President, Senators and victims’ families who were professing (with varying degrees of apparent sincerity) outrage over Megrahi’s release;  and neither the Blair nor Brown nor Cameron governments felt themselves under any obligation to support an SNP separatist government in Edinburgh, even when it had acted in a way that benefited the overall interests of the UK.

So the mysteries remain unsolved;  the Daily Telegraph homes in on the wrong issues; and meanwhile so far as we know Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi is still alive.  I wonder whether we shall ever know the truth.


1 Response

  1. Richard T says:

    Brian I read this as the Telegraph distorting the picture to get at two targets – the last Government and the Scotish Government with the same leak.  The embroidery of what seems to me to be a perfectly innocent communication from the Foreign Office to Libya is tribute to the agenda the paper has in denigrating its ‘enemies’.  I think we have gone over this ground before but my take is perhaps simplistic in that the Scottish Government is in a fix – although there are strong and vocal doubts about the verdict in the Scottish legal establishment (not proven would have been the probable outcome with a jury), it cannot do other than express its faith in the judges’ decision but the last thing that they wanted was for Al Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail with all that would entail.  Hence, at the risk of flippancy, Kenny MacAskill played the get out of jail fee card in good faith I am prepared to believe.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Richard. I agree with all that, including what you say about the covert agenda of the Daily Telegraph. It seems to me that the case for releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds was overwhelming: the medical diagnoses and prognosis alone justified it and was consistent both with the precedents and humanitarian principles; it was helpful to UK commercial interests; it avoided the continued incarceration and probable death in prison of someone whose conviction is widely believed to have been unsafe, although the Scottish Justice Secretary obviously had to act on the assumption that Megrahi had been rightly and safely found guilty; and it enabled Megrahi’s appeal to be dropped, thus avoiding the risk of the verdict being quashed on grounds that might have put the original proceedings in a Scottish court under Scottish law in an embarrassingly bad light. Of course only the first of these — the medical grounds — could be properly taken into account in the formal decision: but Mr MacAskill is only human, and anyway his decision was perfectly justifiable on unimpeachably proper grounds.

    It’s regrettable, though, that we may now never know the truth about who was really responsible for putting the bomb on that plane, whether Libya was actually involved (even if it transpires that Megrahi himself was not), what pressures may have been brought to bear (and by whom) to ensure that Megrahi and his co-defendant were prosecuted and that Megrahi was convicted, more precisely what communications on the subject really passed between UK and Scottish ministers in the period leading up to Megrahi’s release and why the UK government has refused to allow them to be published, why both the UK and Libyan governments attached so much importance to putting in place that Prisoner Transfer Agreement (obviously in the context of possibly applying it to Megrahi) when Megrahi’s transfer to a Libyan prison under the PTA would so plainly have been inconsistent with the terms of the original agreement on the handling of the case as formally approved by the Security Council, and what are the real grounds of successive governments for resisting the calls, including those by some of the Lockerbie victims’ relatives, for a full judicial inquiry into all these matters. Setting up such an inquiry, or reinstating Megrahi’s appeal even after he has been released, would clearly be well beyond the powers of the Scottish government, even if it wanted to.