ABDELBASET al Megrahi has revealed that Kenny MacAskill believed he should drop his appeal against his Lockerbie bombing conviction to make it “easier” for him to be released on compassionate grounds.
Through a third party, the Justice Secretary’s view was made known to Megrahi while he languished in jail, even though there is no legal requirement for an appeal to be dropped for a prisoner to be granted compassionate release.
The reason why Megrahi chose to abandon his legal action to clear his name has been something of a mystery and spawned much speculation that his release was the result of a political deal.
The explosive revelation is contained in a book published today, in which the Libyan protests his innocence and gives his own account of the events that led to him walking free from a Scottish jail despite being found guilty of the worst mass murder in British legal history.
Megrahi’s assertion will raise yet more questions about the role played by Mr MacAskill in the release of the man blamed for killing 270 people when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie in 1988.
In “Megrahi – You are My Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence”, Megrahi recalls last weeks of his incarceration in Greenock Prison.
Before his diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer raised the prospect of compassionate release, Scotland’s highest profile prisoner had been hoping that he would be allowed to return home to Libya under the controversial Prisoner Transfer Treaty that had been signed by Tony Blair and Col Gaddaffi.
Under the terms of the treaty, he would have to drop his appeal and on March 23 2009 he signed a provisional undertaking to abandon it.
As his cancer deteriorated and his life-expectancy shortened, Megrahi became aware that there was another way he could get back to Libya, by being freed under licence by Mr MacAskill on compassionate grounds – a route that did not require him to drop his appeal.
The book by John Ashton, written with Megrahi’s complete co-operation and the convicted murderer’s own written testimony, refers to a meeting between Mr MacAskill, his senior civil servants, and a delegation of Libyan officials.
The meeting took place after Mr MacAskill had met Megrahi in jail, which was seen as a highly controversial encounter when it took place on 6 August 2009. (Incidentally, Megrahi reveals that the Justice Secretary signed a copy of his book “Building a Nation” for the prisoner)
The Libyan delegation, which later met Mr MacAskill on August 10, included Minister al-Obedi and the Libyan Supreme Court Judge Azzam Eddeeb.
In the book, Megrahi said: “After the meeting the Libyan delegation came to the prison to visit me. Obedi said, that towards the end of the meeting, MacAskill had asked to speak to him in private.
“Once the others had withdrawn, he stated that MacAskill gave him to understand that it would be easier to grant compassionate release if I dropped my appeal. 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.”
Megrahi said that it was with “huge reluctance and sadness” that he broke the news to his lawyer Tony Kelly, who was “utterly shocked” pointing out that he had the legal right to continue with his appeal.
Suspicions that a deal was done have been fuelled by the idea that a successful appeal by Megrahi would undermine the credibility of the Scottish justice system.
While the fact that Megrahi has lived far longer than the three months life expectancy required for compassionate release has done nothing to dampen allegations of a deal. Megrahi remains alive two and a half years after his release.
Mr MacAskill has always denied that a deal was done. On one occasion the Justice Secretary said: “There’s loads of stories about Megrahi,” he said. “There’s a veritable industry out there as there is about whether Elvis Presley is alive and working in some chip shop in Fife. A note of the meeting is on the government website and I never at any stage have suggested to him that he should drop his appeal.”
With the appeal dropped and little chance of the conviction now being overturned, Ashton’s book argues strongly that Megrahi is innocent.
Much of their argument centres around their doubts about the reliability of the key witness in the original case, which saw three Scottish judges find Megrahi guilty at the conclusion of a Scottish High Court of Justiciary at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.
Central to Megrahi’s conviction was identification evidence provided by Tony Gauci, a Maltese shop-keeper to whose shop clothing recovered from the blast was traced.
The prosecution’s case rested on the claim that the clothes were packed in the suitcase that transported the bomb on to Pan Am Flight 103 and that the garments were bought from Mr Gauci by Megrahi.
The book argues that it is “far from certain” that Megrahi ever met Mr Gauci, who was later alleged to have received a $2 million reward for information relating to the case.
Doubt is cast on the date on which the two men are supposed to have met and the book points to inconsistencies in statements made by Mr Gauci when he linked photographs of Megrahi with the customer who was supposed to have bought the clothes.
“Even if there was an event along the lines he (Gauci) described his recollection was clearly erratic with important details changing radically between his statements, sometimes following unintentional prompting by the police. His trial evidence also diverged from his earlier accounts, yet the judges were satisfied he was reliable,” Ashton writes.
The book raises the possibility that Libya and Megrahi were framed for the atrocity suggesting that the clothes from Gauci’s Maltese shop and fragments of a bomb timer recovered from the aircraft debris could have been planted.
But Ashton acknowledges that the real truth behind the Lockerbie bombing might never be known.
Megrahi also disputes the Scottish judges’ assertion that he was a Libyan intelligence officer of “fairly high rank” insisting that he was only ever seconded to the Jamahiriya Security Organisation, the Libyan intelligence and security service for less than a year.
On the three Scottish judges Lords Sutherland, Coulsfield and MacLean, Megrahi claimed “ultimate responsibility for the guilty verdict” lay with them.
And in a final, powerful appeal to Gauci, Megrahi writes: “As I near the end of my life, I wish to say the following to him directly, I swear to God that I was never in your shop and never saw you in my life until we were in court.
“While you and your brother received a huge reward, your wrongful incrimination of me brought great suffering to my family and my country. I therefore ask you one question: do you feel any pangs of remorse?
“I wish to make clear that I forgive you. One day we shall both meet our God and I hope He is as forgiving. I have nothing to fear from him.”