Al-Megrahi release row: What do we know?

The release by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell of papers related to the freeing of the Lockable bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi has resulted in a furios debate.

The release by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell of papers related to the freeing of the Lockable bomber has once again resulted in a furious debate over the decision in 2009 by the SNP’s justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds, and allow him to return to Libya.


At the time, the Mr MacAskill explained:

The decision was mine and mine alone – I stand by it and I live with the consequences.”

The documentation relates to negotiations between Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), the Scottish Executive and the Libyan government as to whether Al-Megrahi should be included within a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA).

In a nutshell, Gus O’Donnell’s summary of events (pages 3 – 18) outlines the following:

• The UK Government did not want the bomber to be included within the PTA, as outlined in June 2007 in a letter from the then Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer to Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond.

• The Libyans were not prepared to accept Al-Megrahi’s exclusion from the PTA, with the Cabinet Secretary explaining (page 5):

“The Libyan view was that because the PTA did not confer on a prisoner an automatic right to transfer, and both States had the right to refuse an individual request, the exclusion clause was not necessary.”

• BP lobbied the UK Government to achieve a swift conclusion to negotiations over the PTA over concerns that a deal between them and the Libyans was at risk otherwise. No mention however was made of the Lockerbie bomber.

• In 2008, the UK Government eventually signed a PTA with Libya, which did not explicitly exclude Al-Megrahi.

Undoubtedly, the most quoted line in the document is that from O’Donnell himself in the summary, in which he concluded (pages 9/10):

“Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi’s transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds. Such an approach was understood across all relevant Government Departments.”

There are also interesting revelations about the Scottish government’s attitude to the PTA between the UK and Libya. Writing to the then UK justice secretary, Jack Straw, on December 6th 2007, Mr MacAskill outlined the Scottish government’s opposition to Al-Megrahi being included within the transfer agreement.

He explained (page 10):

“In my earlier letters I made clear our preference is that al Megrahi should be clearly and specifically excluded from the terms of any prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. I am grateful for your agreement that the negotiations with Libya should proceed on that basis.”

The documents published by Mr O’Donnell, however, appear to suggest that at the same time, the UK government was given the impression that the Scottish National Party administration would accept the Lockerbie bomber’s inclusion in a PTA in return for a deal to end slopping-out compensation payments to Scottish prisoners, and provided the UK government took steps to devolve further powers to the Scottish parliament over firearms legislation.

The Cabinet Secretary found (page 7):

“Subsequently it is clear that HMG’s understanding was that a PTA without any exclusions might be acceptable to the Scottish Government if progress could be made with regards to ongoing discussions relating to liabilities for damages under the Scotland Act for breaches of Human Rights (the Somerville judgment), and devolution of firearms legislation.”

Reacting to the Cabinet Secretary’s report, a spokesperson for the Scottish government said:

“In terms of the UK review of documents, the key issue which emerges is how UK Government policy changed in the autumn of 2008 to favour the release of al Megrahi – while maintaining that UK Ministers had no position.

“The Scottish Government is delighted to have the opportunity to release the final documents we can publish, which relate to notes of meetings and conversations with UK Ministers – they confirm that Scottish Ministers followed the due process of Scots Law and practice throughout the entire period, without regard to foreign policy, economic or any other considerations.

“The Scottish Government maintained our opposition to the Prisoner Transfer Agreement and to the UK Government’s reneging of its commitment to secure the exclusion of al Megrahi – regardless of any understanding arrived at by the then UK Government.”

While for Scottish Labour, the party’s justice spokesman in Holyrood, Richard Baker, said:

“Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond now have very serious questions to answer about Megrahi’s release.”

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