Lesley Riddoch: Fate of Lockerbie bomber is not the key issue

KENNY MacAskill is now facing an almost impossible situation over the man convicted in 2001 of the Lockerbie bombing.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi wants early release from his 27-year minimum sentence on compassionate grounds – he's expected to die within three months of prostate cancer. Such compassion has recently been shown to Ronnie Biggs and in Scotland, of the 30 such requests made since 2000, only seven have been denied. Even though there's every prospect he will arrive in Libya like a returning hero, that must have nothing to do with the medical and legal decision here.

But Megrahi's surprise decision to end his appeal has queered the pitch, raising suspicions that a prison transfer has been agreed instead to temper American anger that a convicted mass killer should be shown any compassion at all. The fate of Megrahi is emotive and urgent, but it is not actually the most important issue at stake.

Trust in government and faith in the law also hang in the balance, partly because faith in Scotland's ability to do big things well is easily dented – and Megrahi's conviction by Scottish judges under Scottish law at Camp Zeist was perhaps the biggest ever moment for our distinctive legal system – but mostly because the official explanation for the Lockerbie bombing is at least as unconvincing as the most compellingly argued rivals.

Conspiracy theories abounded in 1994 when the London Film Festival dropped its planned screening of the Maltese Double Cross – a documentary blaming Iran not Libya – and this newspaper took the decision to screen it.

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As assistant editor, I sat with a reporter for a full week, checking claims made by American film-maker Allan Frankovich.

Scotsman lawyers needed sight of relevant documents and sworn affidavits from interviewees – including one from a witness living in hiding in Sweden. After three small edits, the film was "legalled" and ready, but our booked venue in Edinburgh suddenly discovered a double-booking. The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) stepped in – though it received phone calls threatening legal action from men purporting to be lawyers for one of the American Drug Enforcement Agency officials named in the film.

Cuts were still being made in London the night before the GFT screening – so Lockerbie relative Dr Jim Swire was asked to bring the final version north with him the following morning. Jim had attended the first private screening of the film by Tam Dalyell in the House of Commons – protected from possible libel claims by parliamentary privilege – and apparently sat with a blanket at the open front door all night to make sure he didn't miss the dispatch rider who arrived at 3am with the completed film.

That morning, we got news that the only other copy of the film, held by a human rights group in Birmingham, had been destroyed in a mysterious overnight fire. I travelled with the large Beta cassettes of the film in a rucksack, reckoning that a casual appearance was the safest strategy.

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The audience settled, the film was shown, there was a question-and-answer session with Jim Swire, and we held our collective breath. Would The Scotsman, as one prominent journalist had warned, find itself frozen out of Crown Office briefings for a decade? Would we be sued, contradicted, even disappeared?

In fact, next to nothing happened. The Edinburgh Film Festival awarded Best Documentary prize to the Double Cross and, bizarrely, Frankovich died of a heart attack three years later at the relatively young age of 56. The "unsayable" had been said: that Palestinians, backed by Iran, may have been responsible for Lockerbie. Like all well-formed conspiracy theories, it shook faith in the conventional explanation but didn't offer a foolproof alternative. And, despite the emergence of key bits of information since then, there still is none.

There doesn't have to be. Our legal system works on the basis of reasonable doubt, and even if judges in Camp Zeist had none, key politicians, relatives and lawyers still do. And that matters, especially now.

The public was sold a pup on the existence of WMD in Iraq, and another on the 45-minute warning. We were sold a pup on the health of our banks and an almighty pup on the promise that bankers' bonuses would never reach those judgment- distorting, greedy, heady heights ever again. Governments lie. Bankers lie. And people lie – even under oath.

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The stitch-up exists, but the cock-up is infinitely more common. Conspiracies appeal to the anti-authoritarian streak in the Scottish psyche. Yet most are compelling nonsense. So what is the public to believe?

Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested a miracle occurs when believing witnesses are lying is more incredible than believing their claims. That observation describes perfectly the flawed business of human judgment. In the absence of all the facts, the public doesn't suspend judgment; it bases opinion on the demeanour of the parties involved.

The American relatives are still angry and punitive. The British, American and now Scottish governments appear shifty. Jim Swire alone has demonstrated dignity and tenacity, and he wants a public inquiry: even though no public inquiry – from Holyrood to Cullen, from Butler to Bloody Sunday – has ever completely answered the big questions.

And he's right. A public inquiry, or a de facto inquiry based on a court case triggered by human rights legislation, must now take place, and for one simple reason – the same reason that prompted The Scotsman to show the Maltese Double Cross film 15 years ago – 270 people were murdered on Scottish soil. Reasonable doubt about the full circumstances of their murder remains. So we must hear it.

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Never mind what Hillary Clinton thinks, and never mind what ultimately happens to Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.