Alex Massie

Oh Christ, Bloody Lockerbie Again

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Whaddyaknow, Wikileaks have some Lockerbie-related cables? Unfortunately they're only about the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and so less interesting - or perhaps simply less illuminating - than Lockerbie-related cables from the investigation and trial years might be.

The Guardian's headline is typically tendentious: Lockerbie bomber freed after Gaddafi's 'thuggish' threats. This is true in as much as Gaddafi threatened to cut-off British business interests in Libya and then Megrahi was released. It is not true however that, as the headline implies, Megrahi was freed because of those threats. Nor, despite everything, is there any evidence in these cables that Gaddafi's threats  - made to a body that was not responsible for the decision - had any impact upon Kenny MacAskill's decision. (Maybe they did: there's no evidence in these documents that this was so, however.)

Again (this blog's Lockerbie archive can be found here) one may say that Megrahi's cancer was useful for all concerned. Absent it, he would still be in Greenock gaol (see this post) and his appeal would be progressing through the courts. Meanwhile, the Crown Office's appeal against the leniency of his sentence would also, I assume, be ongoing. As I've written before, it's a great shame that Megrahi's appeal was abandoned, not least because it has prevented a full, final reckoning of the Lockerbie Affair.

Those commenters who questioned the severity of Megrahi's cancer can consider themselves somewhat vindicated. (For the record: since Megrahi has, rather embarrassingly, outlived by some distance the prognosis that led to his release I'll also say that MacAskill ended up making the wrong decision even, no especially, since it was made on compassionate grounds.)

Still, the cables show that the Americans were also somewhat confused. For instance, on October 24th 2008, the US embassy in London cables Foggy Bottom to say that the UK "is between a rock and a hard place" vis a vis Megrahi. At no point do they appear to grasp that the decision had nothing to do with London and that the Libyan position was, thus, rather akin to petitioning or threatening the President of the United States about a death row decision that was a matter for the Governor of Texas. The cable argues that HMG expected that Salmond would "permit his release on compassionate grounds."

Maybe so, but on January 28th 2009, the US embassy in Tripoli sends a cable that, inter alia, reminds Washington that the Scottish government had received Libya's application for Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds and rejected it (partly on medical grounds, partly on legal ones). Libyan officials, nevertheless:

have warned U.K. Emboffs in demarches here that the consequences for the U.K.-Libya bilateral relationship would be "dire" were al-Megrahi to die in Scottish prison. Specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all U.K. commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties and demonstrations against official U.K. facilities. GOL officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk.

The evidence for this is not obvious. The impression given today is that MacAskill and the SNP were set-up and asked to be the patsies for an arrangement (not a deal) that was, one way or another, in everyone's interests. While this remains possible it is not, I think, supported by the evidence of these cables.

Again, we are asked to believe that MacAskill and Alex Salmond bowed to pressure from London, made (as it turns out) fools of themselves, and have since chosen to remain entirely silent about this? I suggest that this is implausible and that anyone who knows anything about the people concerned must also conclude it is implausible.

The SNP were very unhappy that Megrahi was not excluded from the PTA (though why they were so miffed has always baffled me since Megrahi's de facto inclusion in a PTA agreed before he was diagnosed with cancer did nothing to change the realties of the matter). Now, yes, in some sense the Scottish government has tried to shift attention to London's desire to "normalise" relations with Libya but, again, that desire and considerations of the UK's national interest were not the issue at hand when it came to the decision MacAskill made.

The only thing that has changed since his release is that the bugger is still alive. I accept that this is a Big Thing but dispute that it suggests, far less proves, that there was any nefarious deal offered to Megrahi and Libya. (Or, if you insist, that the deal, is such there was, had anything to do with oil.)

Boringly, all these cables do is confirm what we already knew. London was agitated about the impact on UK commercial interests and keen that Megrahi did not die in Greenock gaol but also sold Libya a PTA-pup knowing that London had no way of ensuring that Megrahi would actually ever be transferred to a Libyan gaol (refusal to countenance this being the position of successive Scottish governments).

Another US cable suggests that the SNP badly under-estimated the "blow-back" it would receive from the decision to release Megrahi. This is probably accurate. But the Guardian's suggestion that "Alex Salmond has privately indicated that he was 'shocked'  is sloppily or deliberately disingenuous since what the cable actually says is that Salmond was "'shocked' by FBI Director Mueller's public letter". Well, he had every reason to be and, if I ken oor Eck, he was most probably shocked by its shabby reasoning and utter fatuousness.

I know it is tiresome to make this case, but the fact remains that all the evidence in the public domain suggests that while London was certainly keen that Megrahi should not die in Greenock this was a decision made in Edinburgh by ministers who accepted medical evidence that has subsequently proved too optimistic/pessimistic.

But who knows, perhaps some document will be published that disproves all this. As I say, this is an episode from which few people emerge with much credit but that doesn't mean that the arguments advanced from London and Edinburgh at the time were fraudulent, nor that MacAskill - with perhaps an eye for grandstanding - did not make his decision in good faith and based upon the evidence before him.

You may think him mistaken (and if so this would surely be the case whether Megrahi lives now or died a year ago) but that's a different matter. No-one wants to believe governments - whether Labour or SNP - but no documents have surfaced that actually refute these respective governmental positions. Not yet, anyway.

As was the case with the Lockerbie trial, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. That case, like - you may say - the original, remains at best not proven...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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