SNP-Westminster feud flares over Lockerbie bomber

Share this article

Key quote

"I have today written to the Prime Minister expressing my concern that it was felt appropriate for the UK government to sign such a memorandum on matters clearly devolved to Scotland without any opportunity for this government and indeed this parliament to contribute." - ALEX SALMOND

Story in full ALEX Salmond picked his first major fight with Westminster last night over a British government deal which he feared could involve the transfer of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya.

The First Minister accused Tony Blair of ignoring the Scottish government and the entire Scottish legal system by signing an agreement with Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi over prisoner transfers from Britain to Libya.

But last night, the UK government hit back, accusing Mr Salmond of being "misleading" and claiming that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) had nothing to do with the Lockerbie bomber and was being drawn up to help the extradition of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is serving life imprisonment in Scotland for his role in the Lockerbie bombing, in which 270 people died when a US passenger jet was blown up over Scotland in December 1988 - the biggest terrorist atrocity in British history. The Libyan government has made it clear it would like him to serve out his sentence in the North African country.

Mr Blair signed an MOU with Col Gaddafi on 29 May this year, promising to work towards agreement on a number of legal areas - including prisoner transfer. The memorandum states that the UK government would "seek to obtain the agreement of all three jurisdictions within the United Kingdom" on the issue.

Although this acknowledges that the Scottish government would be involved at a later date, Mr Salmond is furious that Mr Blair signed the memorandum before consulting his administration, which has complete authority over all prisoners in Scottish jails.

In an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister said he had protested formally to the Prime Minister.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "I have today written to the Prime Minister expressing my concern that it was felt appropriate for the UK government to sign such a memorandum on matters clearly devolved to Scotland without any opportunity for this government and indeed this parliament to contribute."

Scotland's senior law officer, the Lord Advocate, supported his decision to write to Mr Blair, he said.

And the First Minister declared: "The lack of prior consultation on this issue is clearly unacceptable. That position has now been made clear to the Prime Minister."

He added: "This government is determined that decisions on any individual case will continue to be made following the due process of Scots law. The integrity of that process is paramount."

Mr Salmond's letter to Mr Blair acknowledged that the Prime Minister had not done anything illegal or unconstitutional in signing the new memorandum; rather it was an issue of "courtesy and good governance".

Mr Salmond's spokesman stressed that the Executive believed it should have been consulted before the memorandum was signed, not afterwards. He said that the failure of the UK government to do so was a clear breach of the concordats which were drawn up in 1999 to deal with issues which affected both governments.

Mr Salmond was supported by his political opponents at Holyrood, all of whom rounded on the UK government for its discourtesy.

Jack McConnell, the Scottish Labour leader, said he shared Mr Salmond's concerns over the lack of communication from London, but he asked why it had taken Mr Salmond six days between finding out about the memorandum and coming to parliament to deliver an "emergency statement".

UK government sources claimed that Mr Salmond was deliberately using this issue to pick a fight with Westminster.

In April this year, the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal ruled that the previous, 2005 memorandum of understanding did not go far enough to protect Libyans who were extradited. On the basis of this, the UK government started pursuing a new, more comprehensive memorandum with Libya - the initial agreement on which was signed by Mr Blair on 29 May.

"This is not about Lockerbie, this is about Islamic terrorists, al-Qaeda terrorists," said a source close to Mr Blair last night. "Alex Salmond is being completely misleading when he says this has anything to do with Megrahi - he would not be covered by the new MOU."

In a statement last night, Downing Street said: "There is a legal process currently under way in Scotland reviewing this case which is not expected to conclude until later this summer.

"Given that, it is totally wrong to suggest that we have reached any agreement with the Libyan government in this case. The MOU agreed with the Libyan government last week does not cover this case."

But Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was among those who perished in the disaster, rejected Downing Street denials that the agreement between Blair and Gaddafi involved Megrahi. "They would say that, wouldn't they? You cannot have an agreement over repatriating prisoners between the UK and Libya that does not affect Megrahi," he said.

Professor Robert Black, the architect of the trial at the special court at Kamp van Zeist, in the Netherlands, where Megrahi was convicted, said the UK government could not order the transfer of the Libyan or any other Scottish prisoner.

"In the case of Megrahi, that would clearly be a question for Scottish ministers. The position is very clear," he said.


Just what did Tony Blair agree with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last week?

Downing Street says the Prime Minister began the process of agreeing a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) that would establish the legal basis for the UK deporting Libyan citizens from Britain to Libya. It would also contain assurances from Libya about how those people would be treated.

Would that allow Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi to be returned to Libya?

Alex Salmond told MSPs the deal "could be interpreted as having implications" for Megrahi's case. But Downing Street officials say it would not. They insist Megrahi would not be covered by the MOU and that he is specifically excluded. Scottish Executive sources suggest that because the draft MOU mentions "prisoner transfer" as well as extradition, it could still impact on the Lockerbie case.

So what is the MOU about?

Whitehall officials say it is required so the government can win court approval to deport back to Libya a number of Libyans it accuses of involvement in al-Qaeda terrorism. Islamic extremists are routinely mistreated by Col Gaddafi's regime, and British judges require reassurances about their treatment before they will allow such people to be deported to Libya.

But doesn't Britain already have such an agreement?

Yes - an MOU was signed with Libya in 2005. But in April, it was effectively struck down by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which rules on government attempts to deport terror suspects. It found the 2005 MOU did not provide sufficient protection for the human rights of people returned to Libya. In the ruling, the commission refused to deport two Libyans - known as DD and AS - even though it accepted they posed a threat to British national security.

Mr Salmond says Mr Blair has been discourteous by failing to inform him of his talks in Libya. Is there any specific requirement for Mr Blair to consult Mr Salmond about MOUs being negotiated with foreign governments?

The Scotland Act, which reconvened the Scottish Parliament, reserves foreign affairs and relations with foreign countries to Westminster. But Mr Salmond argues the deal with Libya is "emphatically within the remit and authority" of Holyrood. He also cites a general provision in the Scotland Act that requires the UK government to involve the Executive "as fully as possible" in decisions that could affect Scotland.

Where is Megrahi now?

Greenock prison. Having been convicted at a special court in the Netherlands in 2001, he was transferred in 2002 to a specially adapted isolation unit in Glasgow's Barlinnie jail. Then in 2005, he was moved to Greenock, where he can associate with other prisoners.

What is his legal status?

His conviction still stands. But following arguments from his defence team that the evidence against him is unsound, his case is being looked at by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. It can refer cases back to the Court of Criminal Appeal if it believes a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, and the appeal court has the power to quash his sentence. The commission is expected to reach a decision on the case this summer.

What about his constitutional status?

Although the court that convicted him was situated in the Netherlands, it was a Scottish court convened under Scots law, so Megrahi is subject to the Scottish criminal justice system. As such, say Whitehall officials, any decision about deporting him to Libya would ultimately fall to Scottish ministers, who are responsible for the Scottish legal system.