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Archives for August 2009

Rumblings of discontent

Brian Taylor | 17:05 UK time, Friday, 28 August 2009


It may not last. It may fade. But, right now, people in Scotland seem decidedly hostile to the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Opposition to the particular decision taken by Kenny MacAskill is nearly two to one. Even offered options, a majority say that the Libyan should never have been released from jail.

Intriguingly, glancing at the figures in more detail, opinion against release appears particularly strong among younger people with the elderly more inclined towards compassionate release.

But, in all age groups, more oppose the decision than support it. Plus folk feel Scotland's reputation and that of the Scottish Government has been damaged.

They also feel that the Prime Minister has taken a hit while believing that he should not have intervened. He is adamant that he did not.

Overall, a range of factors could be combining here. In street interviews, some mentioned their disgust at the sight of Saltires in the crowd greeting al-Megrahi in Libya.

Like Gordon Brown, it seems they were repulsed.

Further, the reaction from the United States, including the anger of victims' relatives, may be influential.

Further still, the scale of the atrocity. Al-Megrahi protests his innocence but he was found guilty of causing the deaths of 270 people when Pan Am 103 exploded in the skies over Lockerbie.

Most simply, people may feel that this was essentially the wrong call by Mr MacAskill who will now defend his decision again in a Holyrood debate next week.

They don't seem to like the fact that the minister visited al Megrahi in jail despite his insistence that this was required under the rules of the Prisoner Transfer request. (Others dispute that).

However, they don't feel that Mr MacAskill should quit. And, certainly, there's no sign of that following his public statement, his Holyrood version of same and with the debate in sight next week.

Again, things may change. Mr MacAskill may be able to convince more people that his decision was based on mercy to a dying man - and was right.

As things stand, though, Scotland is not happy.

Where next on Megrahi?

Brian Taylor | 17:07 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009


The minister, Kenny MacAskill, sounded sporadically stressed. He stumbled over the odd word.

But then again it isn't every day that you have to defend a decision to release a man convicted of 270 murders.

Alongside the evident tension, though, a key note of assurance. Kenny MacAskill said the decision to free Abdelbaset al Megrahi was his - and he stood by it.

Opposition leaders thought several issues remained unanswered - not least the examination of alternatives to returning the prisoner to Libya and the question of whether Mr MacAskill was obliged to visit al Megrahi in person or whether written representations would have sufficed.

Utterly unscientific, I know, but Nationalist MSPs seemed, if anything, more content after the exchanges than in advance.

So where next? Following this emergency session, there will be a full-scale debate in the Scottish Parliament next week, with a vote.

SNP government ministers are pre-empting opposition attacks by tabling a motion of their own, supporting Mr MacAskill's decision.

It may prove a little difficult for the opposition parties to agree a single, common line - particularly with Labour keen to attack the SNP while the Conservatives want to widen the criticism to include the Prime Minister.

The Liberal Democrats stress that their focus is upon examining the decision itself, not pursuing Mr MacAskill in person.

More generally, a motion of no confidence seems unlikely at this stage. That might misfire as being too evidently partisan.

As so often, the verdict will rest, ultimately, with the voters.

Government unlikely to fall - yet

Brian Taylor | 12:47 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009


Could Alex Salmond's government fall? His administration is facing undeniably its toughest challenge since winning power two years ago.

But could it fall? Could it be brought down over the decision to return the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to Libya?

Numerically, yes, it could. Politically, strategically, it looks unlikely. At this stage.

Firstly, today.

Kenny MacAskill will make a statement to MSPs explaining his decision. Parliament has been recalled from recess explicitly to hear that statement.

There will be no vote: purely the ministerial statement followed by questions.

Votes, however, will almost certainly follow next week when parliament returns in full session.

Then, it is anticipated that opposition parties will table a motion condemning the decision which, they say, was wrong in itself and has had adverse consequences for Scotland.

But that would not be a confidence motion.

You can say it would be "tantamount" to a confidence motion. But parliamentary rules don't recognise "tantamount."

Should he lose that vote, it would of course be open to Mr MacAskill to "consider his position."

That, however, is the permanent state which attends ministerial office.

Here are the rules. Under the Standing Orders of parliament, a motion of no confidence can be tabled at any point.

That could cover the government as a whole or an individual minister.

(Actually, the rules refer to "the Executive". Standing Orders, it would seem, are still reflecting the wording of the Scotland Act rather than the chosen terminology of Team Salmond.)

For such a motion to be debated, it must be signed by 25 MSPs.

For such a motion to succeed, it must be carried by a simple majority of those voting in the chamber.

That is the case with regard to either a minister or the administration as a whole.

Further, the Scotland Act 1998 - from which Holyrood derives its power - provides that no Minister or government can remain in office once losing the confidence of parliament. Resignation must follow.

If a first minister resigns, then a successor must be chosen from among the ranks of parliament within 28 days.

Otherwise, parliament must be dissolved and fresh popular elections held.

Parliament can choose to dissolve itself. But that requires a two thirds majority.

Those, then, are the rules. Here comes the politics.

Opposition parties are out to condemn the Megrahi decision - and the man who made it, Kenny MacAskill.

They want to extend that condemnation to Alex Salmond and his government more generally.

However, they want to focus for now upon the decision, upon the issue.

They do not want at this stage to prioritise the issue of confidence or otherwise in Mr MacAskill or in the government as a whole.

Why not? Two reasons.

They believe that Scottish and global opinion would not look kindly upon an act which might be interpreted as moving over-swiftly into the partisan sphere.

Secondly, they recognise that the very fact of tabling a confidence motion instantly changes the nature, tone and terms of the debate.

It tends to rally support within the governing party.

So, for now, expect opposition parties to focus upon their opposition to the decision per se.

Expect Kenny MacAskill to focus upon defending his decision.

For now.

Religious pitch to US audience

Brian Taylor | 16:58 UK time, Thursday, 20 August 2009


It was, we were repeatedly told, a quasi-judicial decision by Kenny MacAskill.

However, the tone of the announcement sounded more quasi-religious.

Tony Blair apart, it is not all that common for politicians in these islands to use faith-based imagery or language.

It is, however, standard practice in the United States.

This pitch, then, was aimed at least in part at assuaging disquiet across the Atlantic.

Particularly given the pressures upon him, this was a good performance by Kenny MacAskill: comprehensive and, for the most part, assured.

Just think. Would you care to rule upon the fate of another human being, knowing that your every word is being weighed by political rivals, by leaders around the world and, most challenging of all, by families who have lost loved ones?

Political decisions are seldom easy. Those bordered by persistent grief are exceptionally difficult.

Under questioning, Mr MacAskill adhered to consistent lines: the correct approach for a Minister to take.

Once a decision has been taken, vacillation is unhelpful.

So no encouragement for those who say that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi is innocent.

He was properly investigated, lawfully convicted and duly sentenced.

No encouragement either for conspiracy theorists.

Mr MacAskill told me and every inquiring journalist that there had been no deal with the UK Government or Libya or anyone else which prejudiced him in favour of the decision he took.

That had been motivated solely by compassion: justice tempered by mercy.

No support for prisoner transfer. The US families, he said, believed that it was contingent on the original trial arrangements that any sentence would be served in Scotland.

Mr MacAskill then criticised the UK Government for declining to produce evidence in support of their assertion that there were, nonetheless, no legal obstacles to prisoner transfer.

Not sure he was entirely wise to pick this particular political fight in the context of a statement which was based upon higher, more fundamental values.

However, the criticism, was very mild, noting merely that he found the UK Government stance "highly regrettable".

Then to the conclusion. Release on grounds of mercy.

Again, the language was deliberately faith-sounding.

Appealing to Scottish core values? That, of course, is open to humanist interpretation.

But how about citing "the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live"?

Well, you could say that too is open to a secular slant: faith in common humanity, perhaps.

However, a further sentence left no doubt whatsoever.

Mr MacAskill said that Abdelbaset al Megrahi "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."

Not, in truth, the everyday language of politicians here.

But then Lockerbie was, thankfully, no everyday event.

Who benefits from release?

Brian Taylor | 14:36 UK time, Wednesday, 19 August 2009


A question. Cui bono? For whose good? Whose interest is served?

A question we might now reasonably pose with regard to the pending decision affecting Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

I know - I have been told often enough - that Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, is acting in a "quasi-judicial" role with regard to the fate of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

This point is usually made in order either to explain that this is an individual decision for Mr MacAskill or, equally commonly, to rebut suggestions of any political deal surrounding this decision.

However much it may be true that the decision is quasi-judicial, there is another truth. Kenny MacAskill is not a judge. He is an elected politician, rightly subject to public opinion and, in particular, the views of his voters.

So, again, cui bono? What interests would be served by a decision to return Megrahi to Libya?

Palpably, the prisoner's own interests would be served. Either if he is returned to Libya to serve the remainder of his sentence or, more explicitly, if he is freed on compassionate grounds to spend what remains of his life with his family.

Merciful liberty

Given that the Libyan government has pressed for his return to Libya under prisoner transfer, one must also say that the interests of Tripoli would be served by a decision to concede to that request or the alternative of merciful liberty.

But who else? It would seem that, in one respect at least, the interests of the United Kingdom government and security services have already been served by the ending of the Megrahi appeal. London does not want the disclosure of further documents relating to the case, as demanded by Megrahi's legal team.

How about the United States? Just as with London, it is conceivable that there are interests in Washington who welcome the final closure of the case, the ending of the appeal.

Against that, one must set the views voiced by sundry senators and, most influentially, by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

At one level, their demand that Megrahi stay in prison in Scotland may simply be a reflection of constituency interests in the US, an expression of the disquiet expressed by US relatives of those who died in Pan Am 103.

Ms Clinton's Senate seat included Syracuse University. Thirty five students from Syracuse died in the tragedy on 21 December 1988.

Scottish ministers must hope that such discontent is primarily aimed at the option of prisoner transfer and not the more likely avenue of compassionate release.

That, I would suggest, is likely to be a tough sell. US opinion may simply find it difficult to understand why a man convicted of involvement in the death of 270 people, including US citizens, has been released. They may focus upon the fact of release - and not upon the mitigating argument of mercy.

Which brings us to Scottish interest. One again, cui bono? Whose interests are served here?

Ending the appeal

Remember that Scottish ministers are adamant that there has been no deal, there will be no deal. They insist that the issues of Megrahi's fate and the abandonment of his appeals against conviction and sentence are entirely separate.

Plus they argue that the Scottish Government - by contrast with others - has no interest in securing the abandonment of the appeals.

If we accept that at face value, then that means that the Scottish Government does not seek to claim any gain from the ending of the Megrahi appeal. No governmental interest is served.

Further, ministers will not, cannot claim that they have acted, covertly or openly, in the interests of co-operation with the UK Government.

So, to put it bluntly, what does Scotland get? Individual gratitude, perhaps, for an individual act of mercy. Collective gratitude from Libya. An end to responsibility for a controversial and dying prisoner.

Against that, one must set the prospect of resentment in the United States and disquiet among other relatives who still want to get at the facts surrounding the case.

The first should not be over-stated now - and may decline with time and careful handling. The second may at least be addressed, if not answered, by ministerial indications that they remain relaxed about the prospect of an inquiry into the tragedy.

Still and all, right now, it may be difficult to market this as a particularly good deal for Scotland, should the Lockerbie convict be released.

Deal or no deal?

Brian Taylor | 12:44 UK time, Tuesday, 18 August 2009


I am not a conspiracy theorist. Prolonged exposure to the chaotic worlds of politics and the media has tended to drive me towards the other end of the spectrum.

However, that need not mean that we flounder fecklessly on every occasion, in every given set of circumstances.

Sometimes things work - or can be made to work. There can be a handy concatenation of circumstances.

Such, I believe, is palpably occurring with regard to the future of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

The Scottish Government is adamant it has made no deal with Megrahi in respect of his application to be returned to Libya on compassionate grounds, given the state of his health.

In those terms, I accept that. I do not believe Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, went to Greenock prison to strike a bargain.

I do not see him saying: "OK, here's the thing, drop the appeal and you're on your way home."

Competing interests

For one thing, say ministers, the Scottish Government has no interest in seeing the appeal abandoned.

Quite the contrary, they say, they are as keen as others to get to the facts underlying the Lockerbie tragedy.

So, no explicit deal in those terms. That does not mean, however, that the two are not linked, that there has not been choreography extending to other parties including the UK Government, the Libyan government, perhaps the Crown Office and Megrahi himself.

If you like, there is a nexus of influence here, sometimes with competing interests.

But the preponderance of influential interest is for this case to be closed - not least because the UK Government, for one, has indicated it is reluctant to see the disclosure of further documents emanating from foreign sources which the Megrahi legal team say must be made public.

In the High Court in Edinburgh today, Megrahi's counsel, Maggie Scott, made the potential connection explicit - the link, that is, between dropping the appeal and returning her client to Libya.

To be absolutely clear, she did not at any point say that a deal was on offer or that there had been any negotiations.

Early move

She merely said it was her client's belief that abandoning his appeal against conviction and sentence would "assist in the early determination of those applications".

Note, that is "applications", plural. She was referring to the two optional avenues for her client to be returned home: either via Prisoner Transfer (at the request of the Libyan government) or on compassionate grounds (the request of her client himself.)

We already knew all legal proceedings had to be dropped before prisoner transfer could be activated - that includes the Crown's appeal against sentence.

There were indications to the court today there will be early moves on that too. Expect it to be dropped.

That would, therefore, clear the way for Mr MacAskill to grant prisoner transfer, were he so minded. I do not believe he is so minded.

However, again, we are invited to contemplate the "applications". Plural.

Quite apart from prisoner transfer, Megrahi also believes his plea for clemency will be assisted, in his counsel's phrase, if he drops his appeal and closes down the case.

'Stretching credulity'

Mr MacAskill is adamant he made no such suggestion to Megrahi, he offered no such bargain.

So did the Megrahi legal team come to this conclusion themselves - or did others suggest that such a course might be wise, might "assist"?

I would guess the latter. Doesn't make this invidious, of itself. Doesn't make it egregious. Doesn't make it conspiratorial, of itself.

But, again, it's stretching credulity to suggest that there aren't links within the current round of developments.

Elementary, my dear Watson

Brian Taylor | 15:13 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009


Not sure if, like me, you are a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In one, Holmes' trusty associate Dr Watson asserts that one event, following hard upon another, represents "an amazing coincidence."

Holmes replies: "The odds are enormous against its being coincidence. No figures could express them. No, my dear Watson, the two events are connected - MUST be connected. It is for us to find the connection."

A comparable task confronts those who are trying to understand, fully, the apparent endgame which is under way with regard to Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

Item: Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is actively considering whether to return Megrahi to Libya, either on compassionate grounds or under a prisoner transfer scheme.

Item: Megrahi's lawyers announce that he is seeking leave of the court to abandon his appeal against conviction, the second such appeal he has lodged.

We are asked by the Scottish Government to accept that these two incidents are entirely unrelated.

I refer, my honourable friend, to the reply given earlier by Mr S. Holmes of 221b Baker Street, London.

A couple of points. Prisoner transfer to Libya could not proceed while proceedings in this country remain active. So dropping the appeal would be a precondition for that avenue.

How about the other route, then? Compassionate release because of Megrahi's illness?

The two issues - abandoning the appeal and Megrahi's health - are linked in the statement issued today by the Libyan's lawyers, Taylor and Kelly.

They say that his condition has taken a "significant turn for the worse in recent weeks."

Others argue that Megrahi has come under pressure to drop his appeal in order to pave the way to his release on compassionate grounds. That would, arguably, be a tidy solution.

Once again, the Scottish Government adamantly denies that there is any link.

Which leaves us where? Awaiting developments.

On Tuesday, Megrahi's lawyers will seek leave of the High Court to drop the appeal. Mr MacAskill's decision will follow shortly thereafter.

He has promised an outcome by the end of the month. I would not be remotely surprised if the result is that Megrahi returns to Libya.

Mr MacAskill is in an exceptionally difficult position, pressed from all sides, faced with competing perspectives.

UK ministers plainly want an end to the process, not least because they are resisting publication of documents said to emanate from a foreign government which, it is claimed, could cast light upon the case.

The resistance is founded upon an assertion that security would be breached by publication. So diplomats and the security service would welcome a deal that forestalled disclosure.

From an early position where the Scottish Government protested angrily that it had not been consulted over the agreement between Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi, ministers in Scotland have - quite rightly - been brought into discussions with their UK counterparts.

The Scottish legal system might well welcome closure of this protracted, challenging case.

The counter point of view, advanced by Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame, among others, is that Scottish justice is better served by persisting in efforts to dig out the truth.

Then there is the issue of compassion. Megrahi is said to be terminally ill with prostate cancer.

Regardless of other issues, should the justice secretary pay heed to that?

Either way, relatives of those who died are decidedly not content.

There are those who believe that Megrahi is guilty and who say there should be no deal whatsoever - he should remain in jail in Scotland.

Those who believe he is innocent - and consequently welcome his release - nevertheless are voicing distress that the emerging shape of events means that the search for further information will be stalled.

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