Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill urged the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing to drop his appeal as a way of helping his compassionate release from prison, a new book claims today.
The authorised biography of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi reveals for the first time that the minister responsible for deciding whether he would return to Libya actively encouraged Megrahi to give up his case in the appeal court, telling a senior Libyan minister in a private meeting in Edinburgh that "it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal".
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By doing so, the Scottish legal system was spared further scrutiny over a case which many observers believe was based on a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had already highlighted six grounds for suggesting Megrahi's conviction for the murder of 270 people at Lockerbie was unsafe.
The book, released this morning at a press conference in Edinburgh, contains the most explicit account of the extraordinary events leading up to Megrahi's controversial release on compassionate grounds in August 2009, which divided public opinion across the world and brought a storm of criticism, particularly from US officials and relatives.
Megrahi, who has prostate cancer, was said to have only three months to live, but is still alive more than two years later.
In the book he writes: "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 Once the others had withdrawn, MacAskill told him it would be easier for him to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal.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."
The Herald has previously reported diplomatic meetings at which it was revealed that Megrahi would have to drop his appeal to allow the controversial Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) brokered by Westminster after Tony Blair's infamous deal in the desert to ensure UK-Libyan trade links were restored.
Ultimately, Mr MacAskill turned down the application under the PTA signed by the UK Government and Libya, but granted compassionate release instead, for which the status of Megrahi's appeal should have been irrelevant.
However, Megrahi: You Are My Jury, the new book by John Ashton, a former member of the defence team, suggests a direct link between compassionate release and Megrahi dropping his appeal, apparently to protect the reputation of the Scottish justice system after a verdict seen by many as deeply flawed.
Mr Ashton told heraldscotland: "The Justice Secretary and his officials should, at all times, have made it clear to Mr Megrahi and his representatives that, if he chose to continue his appeal, it would have had no bearing on the justice secretary’s decision on whether or not to grant compassionate release.
"Furthermore, they should have been aware that, given Mr Megrahi's desperate position, even the slightest pressure that was applied would have caused him to abandon the appeal, even though he was not legally obliged to do so. Of course, by dropping the appeal he spared the Scottish criminal justice system a colossal embarrassment."
The Scottish Government today denied the allegation as "third-hand hearsay". A spokesman said: "The Justice Secretary has not had a meeting with any party to this issue in the absence of officials. So there has been no such meeting."
He said the Scottish Government had "no conceivable" interest in Megrahi not pursuing his appeal, adding: "The basis of the story is wrong."
But three opposition leaders demanded an urgent statement to the Scottish Parliament from Mr MacAskill.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: "This is a staggering claim and implies that the Scottish Justice Minister was offering legal advice to help a convicted killer escape prison. The allegation is that rather than face a potentially embarrassing and public appeal in court the SNP shut Megrahi up on the promise that it would help in his eventual release – and supports similar claims previously made by SNP member Christine Grahame.
"The SNP Government asserts that they are trying to be more transparent, but this statement paints a far different picture. These are grave allegations and if the Justice Secretary has been withholding information then it calls his position into question. There is now an urgent need for Kenny MacAskill to make a statement to Parliament explaining these claims, followed by an immediate inquiry as so we can finally get to the bottom of this case."
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: "It is important that the Justice Secretary answers serious questions."
Scottish Labour's justice spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: "Kenny MacAskill has repeatedly claimed that the decision for Megrahi to drop his appeal was 'a matter for him and the courts', yet these extraordinary reports throw all that into question.
"If these reports are true, then Kenny MacAskill will have knowingly misled Parliament. It is only proper that he comes before Parliament as a matter of urgency. The families of the victims deserve to know whether this secret meeting took place, and if so, exactly what was discussed."
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said of today's book: "This is yet another reminder that Alex Salmond's government's decision to free the UK's greatest mass murderer was wrong. Writing a book three years after he was released is an insult to the families of the 270 people who were murdered."
The book contains a number of revelations pertaining to new evidence and previously unseen documents and information. It is based on interviews with Megrahi and the full report of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission which referred the case back for a fresh appeal in June 2007 on six different grounds. The commission's full report has never been published.
Although the appeal was granted in 2007, its start was significantly delayed. The defence team, and the new book, claim that the delays could be blamed on the Crown Office, and that many of them were unnecessary. The Crown denied such claims at the time.
However, it was widely agreed that for the appeal to go ahead and for Megrahi to be acquitted of the worst terrorist atrocity to have taken place on mainland Britain would have been a devastating and embarrassing blow to the Scottish legal system, the police investigation, the Crown and judiciary.
What the new book lays bare is just how much new evidence there was to secure Megrahi’s acquittal and just how likely it was if the appeal had gone ahead.
One of the most significant revelations the defence team learned just before he dropped the appeal concerned a fundamental part of the prosecution’s case against Megrahi: that a fragment of circuit board supposed to confirm that the timer used to detonate the Lockerbie bomb came from a Swiss company linked to Megrahi and which allegedly sold 20 such timers only to Libya did not, in fact, match the circuit boards made by this company.
The book also raises serious questions about the reliability of the Crown’s key witnesses and reveals major inconsistencies in statements and forensics evidence.
Megrahi describes his decision to drop the appeal as a "terrible choice to have to make". He writes: "I never doubted that, if they considered the evidence objectively, the appeal judges would overturn the conviction. From that moment I made that decision, I was determined that, if I could not be judged in a court of law, then I should be judged in the court of public opinion. This book presents the case for both the prosecution and the defence."
Megrahi: You Are My Jury by John Ashton is published by Birlinn