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Tuesday, February 08, 2011 

The Maltese double cross part 5.

It's long seemed appropriate that the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi should have been shrouded in the same level of secrecy, confusion and controversy as that in which the search for those responsible for the Lockerbie bombing was and continues to be. It's also been indicative of the continuing low level of our politics, the hypocrisy of absolutely everyone involved, and what some would term as the cold, hard realities of diplomacy with dictatorships and others would regard as selling ourselves incredibly short.

The facts of the case remain completely unchanged following the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell's review of all the papers involved, a review ordered by David Cameron almost certainly not in the interests of full transparency but instead in the hope of pulling something else out that could be blamed upon Gordon Brown and Labour, with a side order of sticking one up the Scottish National Party at the same time if possible. The background prior to al-Megrahi being diagnosed with terminal cancer surrounded the negotiation of the prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya, which Libya subsequently linked to the ratification of the Exploration and Production Sharing agreement with BP. Strangely, from having previously wanted to exclude al-Megrahi from the PTA, under the weight of lobbying from BP, which was "suffering significant financial loss", Jack Straw suddenly decided that he could be included after all, although safe in the knowledge that the Scottish government would have to make the final decision. What the documents do disclose is that while opposing in public any possibility that al-Megrahi could be transferred back to Libya under the PTA, Kenny MacAskill wrote that it could be acceptable if authority over firearms legislation could be devolved and progress made over liabilities for damages concerning the Somerville judgement. This is as low as the SNP went, and in any case the UK government decided against concessions, going ahead with an exclusion free PTA regardless.

We were also previously unaware of just how far the UK government went in helping Libya with its representations to the Scottish government once al-Megrahi was diagnosed with cancer, and also how determined Labour ministers were that he should be returned. A "game plan" was drawn up, where ministers would stress that the decision was for the Scottish government to make, but would at the same time do all they could to facilitate contact between the two. In the event, much of this was rejected by the Scottish ministers as improper. Not elaborated on or redacted are exactly what threats the Libyans directly made or intimated in the event of al-Megrahi dying in custody. They were however serious enough for full contingency plans to be put in place to safeguard UK staff and nationals.

And that, more or less, is it. To say that there hasn't been the clich├ęd smoking gun uncovered is an understatement: the Scottish government did absolutely everything by the book. It didn't rush into making a decision as soon as it became clear the al-Megrahi was ill, it waited a further 10 months and received the medical opinion that he had less than 3 months to life, making him perfectly eligible for compassionate release. This incidentally, was almost what the US government intimated it would prefer to happen should al-Megrahi be released, the only difference being they would prefer him staying in Scotland rather than returning to Libya. It is worth being cynical about the possibility of a Scottish serial killer being released from prison in a similar fashion if he was struck down by a terminal illness, yet it's also hard to shake the feeling that the doubt about al-Megrahi's guilt also played a part in the considerations. This makes it all the more perverse or conversely, convenient, that he was all but forced into dropping his appeal before his compassionate release was announced. The embarrassment and brickbats the government would face over its decision would be nothing compared to his conviction being declared a miscarriage of justice.

The real outrage here apart from that is just how we conduct ourselves when making representations to some of the most repressive and unpleasant regimes on the face of the planet. It's worth remembering that Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in charge is nothing to Colonel Gaddafi's 41; if any Arab state is crying out for a revolution, Libya is it. While Tony Blair was Gaddafi's chief sycophant, Gordon Brown's cringe inducing letters to the tyrant, making clear how he looked "forward to developing a close and productive relationship" come fairly close. As with so much else, the "war on terror" and the apparent determination of government to help businesses regardless of any real remaining ties with the nation (BP's largest division is in America) overcame all obstacles: Libya is one of the nations we reached a wretched "memorandum of understanding" with, allowing us to deport "terrorist suspects" back to a country where torture is endemic safe in the knowledge that there'd leave the thumbscrews off just for us.

Secondary is just how pathetic and petty our politicians continue to be. Every opposition party in Scotland opposed the decision reached by the SNP, including the Scottish Labour party, almost certainly in spite of knowing just how Labour at Westminster was pushing for al-Megrahi's release behind the scenes. All, it is safe to say, would have reached exactly the same decision had they been the ones who had to make it. Much the same is the case in Westminster. Only last week did Lord Carlile signal that the UK should continue down the road of reaching MoUs with nations which we ordinarily would be unable to deport foreign "terrorist suspects" to, meaning that more authoritarian states will be dealt with in just the same fashion. David Cameron at least, in making the statement to the Commons yesterday on the report didn't tear into Labour as he could have done, no doubt for the same reason that he now finds himself sucking up to every dictator in Africa and the Middle East in much the same fashion, perhaps even more so considering the usual Conservative dedication to helping British business wherever they can, regardless of what they're doing and who it affects. I don't think I can really say it better than I did at the time:

Somewhere in all of this there is a dying man, denied the opportunity to clear his name, and over 280 families in similar circumstances, some equally uncertain of how their loved ones came to die, others outraged by the decision to release the man in anything other than a box. All are being ignored for as ever, short term political gain. This isn't going to win any elections, it isn't even going to make a difference in opinion polls; it's either, according to your view, bringing a good, humane decision into disrepute, or even further distracting attention from someone who has escaped justice. Politics is as usual struggling to pull itself out of the sewer.

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As a side note the evidence that the Scottish Government were actually prepare to strike a deal with the UK Government over the PTA is a touch dubious. In the main it seems based on an internal Labour e-mail and the corresponding minutes from discussions between Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill show that both issues were discussed but at no point does it say that there was a discussion about a deal concerning the deal.

If anyone is interested in reading more about it then try the Newsnet Scotland site

http://www.newsnetscotland.com/

Thanks for that. The sourcing does indeed look shaky.

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