The Scottish Government has reacted to claims in the Scottish media that a ‘deal’ was agreed with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to release the dying prisoner, by saying they are based on “third hand hearsay”.
The media claims were dismissed as "untrue" by Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill who insisted that no deal was done.
The reports, which originated in the Herald newspaper, and have been widely reported by BBC Scotland and other outlets are based on a new book published today that contains a statement from the dying Libyan who says he was advised to drop his appeal by a Libyan official.
In the book, Mr Megrahi tells how he was encouraged by the Libyan Minister to drop his appeal on the basis of a private conversation the official claims to have held with Kenny MacAskill.
Mr Megrahi’s account of a meeting between himself and one of Gaddafi’s trusted officials has led to headlines and broadcasts alleging a direct agreement between the dying Libyan and the Justice Secretary.
The Scotsman newspaper claimed “Kenny MacAskill advised Megrahi to drop appeal” whilst the Herald article is headlined: ‘Megrahi: how MacAskill linked my release to dropping my appeal’.
BBC Scotland has had regular radio bulletins with several presenters saying that Mr Megrahi claims he was urged by Mr MacAskill himself to drop the appeal.
On Radio Scotland, presenter Mhari Stewart reported: “Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man found guilty of the 1988 atrocity, claims he was urged by the Scottish Government to drop an appeal against his conviction.”
The claims also featured prominetly on BBC Scotland's Reporting Scotland and have prompted calls from Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems for an emergency statement from Mr MacAskill.
However, the actual passage on which the media claims are based makes no mention of any deal or conversation between Mr Megrahi and Kenny MacAskill. Instead it describes a conversation the Libyan prisoner had with a member of Gadaffi’s official Ministerial team - Abdel Ati Al-Obeidi.
In the book, ‘Megrahi: You Are My Jury’, author John Ashton quotes Mr Megrahi:
"On 10 August (2009), MacAskill and his senior civil servants met a delegation of Libyan officials, including Minister [Abdel Ati] Al-Obeidi. By this time I was desperate.
"After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obeidi said that, towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private. Once the others had withdrawn, MacAskill told him it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. He [MacAskill] said he was not demanding that I do so, but the message seemed to me to be clear. I was legally entitled to continue the appeal, but I could not risk doing so. It meant abandoning my quest for justice."
Responding to the media claims, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill described them as “not true”.
“It’s not true, this is third hand hearsay" said Mr MacAskill who added:
“It was always a decision for Mr al-Megrahi whether he maintained or abandoned his appeal. The decision I made was not predicated in any case on that, but that’s a matter for him and his legal team.”
The dropping of the appeal by the Libyan who has always protested his innocence has always been a source of great speculation.
Mr MacAskill visited Megrahi in Greenock Prison as part of his application for release through the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) negotiated between Tony Blair and Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi two years earlier in the notorious deal in the desert.
It was claimed that Mr Megrahi’s appeal was being stonewalled by the Crown who were accused of dragging out the process in the knowledge that Megrahi was dying. Any release under the PTA required that an appeal be dropped.
However compassionate release required no such dropping of the appeal and this was the eventual route by which Mr Megrahi obtained his return to Libya.
The reporting of a ‘deal’ by the Scottish media will be viewed by some as an attempt at diverting attention from new and very damning evidence suggesting Mr Megrahi had nothing whatsoever to do with the downing of Pan-Am 103.
The trial verdict, long thought an affront to justice, was the subject of a review by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) who found compelling evidence that a miscarriage may have occurred. This included substantial payments by the American Justice Department to the prosecution’s main witness Tony Gaucci.
Mr Ashton’s book contains additional evidence not uncovered by the SCCRC including a fragment of a circuit board found at Lockerbie, which was 100% covered in tin, which did not match the timers sent to Libya which contained a mixture of tin and lead.
Mr Ashton alleges that the Crown's forensic expert at trial, Allen Feraday, was aware of the disparity but failed to disclose it.
The release of Mr Megrahi in 2009 was one of the most controversial decisions the Scottish Parliament had ever witnessed.
With the eyes of the world upon him, Kenny MacAskill announced that he was releasing the dying Megrahi on compassionate grounds after medical advice suggested a prognosis of three months.
The event was politicised to the extent that media reports began to be corrupted and an avalanche of misinformation was put into the public domain by print and broadcast media alike.
Labour’s then leader Iain Gray insisted that Megrahi ought to have been kept in prison to die, he also cast doubt on the medical evidence on which the decision to release the Libyan was based, calling it flawed. Gray’s Justice Spokesman Richard Baker urged American Senators to join him in demanding medical records be revealed.
In September 2010, BBC Scotland’s Raymond Buchanan, in a news item showing Megrahi’s return to Libya, said: “It was said that he was likely to die within three months, this is the moment more than a year ago Abdelbasset Al Megrahi returned home. But does this scene also show something else; proof the Libyan wasn’t as sick as we’d been told?”
Almost immediately, the BBC began a campaign of misinformation against the SNP Government. In one infamous broadcast on the night of Megrahi’s release, senior BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell described Kenny MacAskill as “the toast of Tripoli” – Campbell went on to win an award for his handling of the coverage.
Last year Wikileaks exposed the duplicity within the Labour party when secret documents revealed that the Labour Government had been actively pushing for the release of Megrahi in return for deals on energy.
The documents showed Labour Ministers, including Jim Murphy, were included in communications. Other documents described how Whitehall was actively advising the Libyan’s on the relevant areas of Scots Law in an effort at facilitating Megrahi's release.
Further documents revealed that the Labour Government had agreed to facilitate communications in order to allow the Americans to put pressure on the Scottish Government to release Megrahi.
Newsnet Scotland comment - Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was convicted on evidence that many feel would have been laughed out of any normal court; he was tried by a panel of judges and not a jury. His biography today contains very many claims which, if true, cast further doubt on his conviction.
His description of a conversation with a Libyan official regarding the dropping of his appeal is almost certainly an honest account based on his recollections. However, it is not as Herald journalist Lucy Adams claims when she says: "If Megrahi's version of events is true, it will prove very damaging to the minister, who has repeatedly distanced himself from any appeal which, if it had gone ahead, could have been a massive embarrassment to the Scottish legal system."
Mr Megrahi's version of events may well be accurate and in fact probably are, however this does not prove any 'deal' existed nor does it prove MacAskill urged Megrahi to do anything - Megrahi did not speak to MacAskill about the appeal as the book makes clear. The question is whether the claims related by Gaddafi's envoy to Mr Megrahi are true? It is already documented in official whitehall communications that London was actively helping the Libyan's with the complexities of Scots law. An appeal would have highlighted the weakness of the original verdict and could have led to very uncomfortable questions for the US and UK authorities.
There is no question that this has been a stain on Scottish Justice. However there is one other Scottish institution that also finds itself in the dock of shame - the Scottish media. The behaviour of the BBC is a low point in the history of a proud institution.
For those who are unaware of the way BBC Scotland reported and manipulated the Megrahi story, and other related events, then here is one of Newsnet Scotland's very first series of articles ... Megrahi, the media and the myths