Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill has revealed that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi had given a written undertaking to drop his appeal against conviction for the Lockerbie bombing months before both men met in Greenock Prison.
The provisional undertaking was signed by the Libyan prior to his application for compassionate release but at a time when he was aware that any outstanding appeal would have prevented his return to Libya via the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA).
The PTA was the result of secret negotiations between former Labour PM Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi in the infamous ‘deal in the desert’. It is known that the former Labour Government were actively engaged in negotiations with the Libyans to have Megrahi freed from the Greenock prison and returned to Libya in return for deals on energy.
Mr MacAskill was making a statement to the Holyrood chamber after opposition MSPs accused him of doing a deal with the dying Libyan in order to set him free. The claims have been repeated in various Scottish media outlets and have been given high profile coverage on the BBC.
They follow claims in the book ‘Megrahi – You Are My Jury’ in which Mr Megrahi spoke of being told by a Libyan official, Abdel Ati Al-Obeidi, that Mr MacAskill had said that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if the appeal was dropped.
However in a statement yesterday, the Justice Minister categorically denied the claims, saying “presiding officer, these claims are wrong”.
Mr MacAskill opened his statement by offering his condolences to the relatives of those who perished in the downing of Pan Am 103.
He explained that a record of his communications with the Libyan delegation has been in the public domain since September 2009 and that at no time was he, or any of his officials, alone with any Libyan representative.
“These records are made by impartial civil servants to ensure that there is a proper historic record of important discussions.” he said.
“In addition to the minute kept, presiding officer, let me be quite clear. Scottish Government officials were present throughout my meeting with Mr Al-Obeidi.
“At no time did I or any other member of the Scottish Government suggest to Mr Al-Obeidi, to anyone connected to the Libyan Government or indeed to Mr al-Megrahi himself that abandoning his appeal against conviction would in any way aid or affect the application for compassionate release.”
The Justice Secretary told the chamber that compassionate release did not require the dropping of an appeal unlike the PTA. It is already known that Megrahi’s legal team advised their client that an appeal was not a barrier to compassionate release.
Mr MacAskill insisted that he had taken no part in the decision to drop the appeal and that it had been a decision taken by Mr Megrahi and his legal team.
He said: “The Scottish Government had no interest whatsoever in Mr al-Megrahi’s appeal being abandoned.”
Mr MacAskill then revealed that Mr Megrahi had already given a written undertaking to drop his appeal on March 23rd 2009, which, said Mr MacAskill, was at a time when Mr Megrahi already knew that an appeal was a barrier to release under the PTA.
The Minister also quashed claims that the Scottish Government was trying to delay the publication of the SCCRC report that contained the six reasons that cast doubt on Mr Megrahi’s conviction.
“Presiding Officer” said Mr MacAskill “Nothing could be further from the truth. This legislation introduced by this Scottish Government, will enable the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to decide whether it is appropriate to disclose information in cases they have investigated where a subsequent appeal has been abandoned.”
Mr MacAskill insisted that the legislation would leave the SCCRC as the decision maker on whether they published the report. He said that the new information now in the public domain may well lead the commission to consider publication.
However he reminded the chamber that data protection legislation, which was reserved to Westminster, was a key barrier to disclosure and revealed that he had already written on three occasions to UK Justice Minister Ken Clark urging a review of the situation and had written a fourth letter that same day urging for an exception to be made to allow publication in what he described as “this unique case”.
“Let no-one be in any doubt” said a determined looking Mr MacAskill “We want the statement of reasons to be published …”
Mr MacAskill then made an unexpected announcement when he confirmed that a route allowing the appeal to be revived existed.
“It would involve an application being made for a further reference by the SCCRC, the commission deciding to make a reference and for the High Court to accept such a reference.”
He added: “That is a matter I would be entirely comfortable with”.
Here is Mr MacAskill’s statement in full. It contains some new revelations.
Here is how BBC Scotland covered this story. Readers can judge for themselves whether the reporter, Glenn Campbell, who described Kenny MacAskill as “the toast of Tripoli” on the evening of Megrahi’s release, gave a balanced and accurate depiction of the statement.