Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism #7: The Megrahi Documents

The Megrahi case has ripped apart the peace of the Scottish Parliamentary recess, with even some former Lib Dem leaders taking a differing view to our leader in Holyrood. Today the UK Government and Scottish Parliament have released papers relating to the discussions that have gone one over the last two years. It ranges from correspondence between Westminster and Holyrood, to memos of meetings with Libyan officials, to the compassionate release request listing medical conditions.

These start chronologically with the first letter from then-Lord Chnacellor Lord (Charles) Falconer to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond outlining the Memorandum of Understanding that Westminster had set up with Libya regarding a number of judicial issues. The Memorandum was drawn up to look at increasing bilateral co-operation covering, amongst other things, commercial and criminal issues. The legal issues were not exclusively about Mr Al Megrahi, but looking at the bigger picture of co-operation between the two nations at large. However, Lord Falconer did say that nothing could be ruled in or out, but that co-operation and consultation between Westminster and Holyrood would be carried forward.

However, it the path of the UK’s justice secretary Jack Straw’s correspondence that sheds a lot of light on the situation, especially considering the Labour response in Holyrood. The Scottish correspondence shows that Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond pushed Mr Straw to involve an exclusion order for Mr Al Megrahi and to make it as tight as possible.

There is an early correspondence from Jack Straw to Kenny MacAskill which goes somewhat into the mechanics of Prisoner Transfer Agreements with Libya. One telling phrase used back in July 2007 from Mr Straw was:

If an agreement under the normal terms were in place with Libya it would rightly be for the devolved justice system to determine whether or not a prisoner held in a Scottish prison should be transferred to his or her country under that agreement.”

Straw then outlined ways to exclude Mr Al Megrahi from any such agreement. Stating that his preferred option of a specific date far enough in the past would be too easily challenged – it would be be seen as aiming at just one man – he then goes on to suggest an alternative that would snare a few but negligible Libyans held in UK jails. This is possibly the start of Straw’s wriggling out of any firm agreement

In September that year, in response to preferred wording from Mr MacAskill, all Mr Straw writes is that the condition be added to the PTA that ‘the prisoner has not been convicted of a criminal offence connected with the destruction of Pan American World Airways Flight 103 on 21 December 1988’ in negotiations to be held in Tripoli the following month. All along, of course, Mr Straw is also saying that while the decision would be discussed together, all final decisions lay with the Scottish legal process.

However, in December that year, Mr Straw confirms that a specific exclusion has not been reached, although the wider discussions with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage – all along stating that decisions on prisoner transfer now rest with the Scottish Minister and the prisoner.

From the correspondence a number of issues are clear: the UK Government was carrying out negotiations with Libya on a diplomatic level. At one point a response states that the fact that the devolved powers would actually have legal jurisdiction over any decision would be best not broached. So while the Scottish executive was looking for a strong lead from Westminster – who were carrying out far wider negotiation – this was not forthcoming.

Why did Jack Straw go from having a preferred option to exclude Magrahi from any Prisoner Transfer Agreement to not even trying his plan B to exclude any one from before the agreement? What of the apparent roles of other Westminster government ministers? Did foreign office minister Bill Rammell really tell the Libyans that neither the Prime Minister, nor foreign secretary David Milliband, wanted Magrahi to die in prison?

This was a Government looking at bi-partisan agreements with a softening Libya. There is almost a Pontius Pilate-like washing of their hands. From being the ones with the tough decisions to make in both Westminster and Holyrood they were suddenly freed of that burden, in part, in May 2007. They starting out standing side-by-side with the requests of the SNP, whilst re-iterating their respect for the separateness of Scottish law. Failing to get agreement, they seemed to take another approach, dropping hints that a release would be okay, but it was entirely Scotland’s call.

The course of action has split the world, split Scotland and even split Liberal Democrats. But, with the disclosure of all this information, is the biggest split the one of the UK Government’s conscience and line over sponsors of terrorism when the smell of oil is in the air?

* Stephen Glenn blogs at Stephen’s Linlithgow Journal.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International, Op-eds and Scotland.
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4 Comments

  • Terry Gilbert 2nd Sep '09 - 6:10pm

    Disappointing to Lib Dem MSPs filing through the lobbies (or do they push buttons in Holyrood?) to condemn MacAskill’s courageous decision. I’m with Messrs Steel and Kennedy on this, sorry Mr Clegg.

  • Andrew Duffield 2nd Sep '09 - 7:38pm

    When is Clegg going to start calling for a full public enquiry into the bombing itself?

    Labour has consistently denied this to the UK Families of Flight 103 and, since there will now be no appeal by Al Megrahi, it is the only possibility of ever getting to the truth of what really happened over Lockerbie.

    In the current climate of political finger-pointing and scalp-seeking, the continuing victims of this tragedy appear to have been entirely forgotten.

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