Like every Scot alive at the time, I recall where I was when I first heard of the Lockerbie tragedy. It’s seared in my memory along with the Ibrox Disaster and Dunblane massacre. I was at home with my eldest son, then just a babe in arms, when the tail end of Channel 4 news announced that a plane had been lost over south-west Scotland. For days and weeks thereafter, news programmes fully detailed the horror of what had occurred.
Later, as a young lawyer, I followed the investigation and watched the drama of the Camp Zeist court case play out. I even knew many of the lawyers involved personally, such is life in village and legal Scotland. But I was still peripheral and never expected to become involved in the Lockerbie story.
However, come it did for, as justice secretary in 2009, it was my responsibility to consider applications for prisoner transfer and compassionate release made by Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only man every convicted of the crime. That saw me engage with state leaders as well as with the families of the victims from around the globe, for Lockerbie was truly international in its dimensions both with those who perpetrated it and those who suffered by it.
As with the atrocity itself, that period is also ingrained in my memory. It couldn’t be anything else given the significance of it and the focus that fell upon me. I realised it was going to be big but it was impossible at the outset to realise just how big. Later, finding my face on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and other international media brought it home.
But, though I’m now part of what seems a never-ending saga, my own involvement was quite truncated, most taking place over a short space of time from spring 2009, when an application for prisoner transfer was submitted by Libya, through to August of that year when I made my decision to release on compassionate grounds.
Of course, there had been involvement before as, just weeks into my tenure in 2007, it was announced that the UK and Libya were seeking to conclude a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA). There was of course only one Libyan national detained in Scotland and it was evident that the UK’s intention was his release. Indeed, Jack Straw, the UK justice secretary, was quite open about it when I spoke to him. BP were seeking a major oil contract and without it the deal would go to an American competitor.
New Labour had either forgotten about devolution or failed to notice that an SNP administration was now in charge at Holyrood. The First Minister quickly raised objections and the UK realised that there were complications. However, though I was involved in discussions, much was dealt with by Alex Salmond given the constitutional aspect.
As debate raged on over the PTA, however, a further twist in the tale came when Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. I was advised of that in September 2008 but things still seemed a long way off, as arguments over prisoner transfer continued and his illness was in its early stages. Indeed, I recall a conversation with my wife at Hogmanay that year when I explained it would be my decision but there still seemed no immediacy.
But, by spring 2009 the pace was picking up as the UK ignored Scottish objections and signed a treaty with Libya. Likewise, Megrahi’s health was worsening and it would only be a matter of time before an application for compassionate release would be submitted.
The months following were to become quite frenetic. Prisoner transfer applications have set timetables and accordingly the clock was ticking. Invariably the responsibility was compounded by us being not just a minority administration but the first ever SNP one. If there were to be political casualties then they would be limited to one. The decision would be for me alone.
However, I was remarkably well supported by staff, even more so as the days passed and pressure mounted. There was no consensus that could be brokered or solution that would see it all just go away. Accordingly, I resolved that the decision I had to make wouldn’t be subject to economic or strategic issues but based on the laws and guidance that applied. They would be followed scrupulously and wherever possible information and actions would be open and public.
That remained the policy of the Scottish Government throughout.
The only red line I ever set was that Megrahi wouldn’t die in a Scottish prison cell. Rejection of either or both applications remained open until my final conclusions but it simply meant that he’d never be allowed to pass away here, even if it meant being medically evacuated at the very last moment. I wasn’t prepared to risk the lives of those who worked in health or prisons through the creation of a martyr and attacks following from those who perpetrate such terror. Events in cities around the globe since then have simply confirmed my view.
But increased security soon surrounded me as governments and organisations from far and wide sought to make their views known. Locked car doors and being driven everywhere were immediately noticeable, though to the chagrin of my driver I often insisted on walking. Hourly drive-bys by police vehicles at home and my office, and even panic alarms installed at both. Sadly, that level of intrusion also impacted on others as my wife from whom I’d recently separated also required to endure it.
It did, though, create a bond with those who worked with me and shared the risks that I’ll take to the grave.
My staff did their best to insulate me from undue pressure and I recall being advised that Robert Mueller, currently investigating President Trump but then FBI director, had sought to have a letter delivered personally to me. It was out of office hours and contrary to diplomatic protocols and his request was speedily rejected by my office, who advised it could be delivered to St Andrews House in the usual manner. I remained sound asleep oblivious to it all but was told that a police armed response team had been scrambled to my address just in case, greatly endearing me to them ever since.
To make a decision, evidence had to be heard from victims’ families and States. Much was harrowing indeed with many meetings being distressing for staff and myself. Governments varied in their attitudes. The Libyans convivial but with an underlying hint of menace; the Americans business like but co-operative with information; whilst the UK was shameless, all the time conniving for Megrahi’s release but equally insisting it was nothing to do with them.
Many politicians were equally shameful. Labour in Scotland simply opposed whatever I did despite the risks to the nation and the collusion of their London colleagues with Libya. Tories likewise condemned whilst former Tory ministers sought to lobby on behalf of Anglo-Arab business interests.
As is now well known I refused the prisoner transfer request as it was clear that there had been a UN brokered agreement between UK/USA and Libya that sentences would be served in Scotland.
The legal criteria for compassionate release were also met and so I rejected the former but granted the latter.
It’s a decision I stand by to this day and whilst some disagree, with it few can fault the procedure. Indeed, information that has since come to light since has simply confirmed my view. I always knew that Scotland was but a small cog in a much bigger international wheel. The British and Americans, whatever their public utterances, were colluding with Gadhafi on everything from training his special forces to rendering prisoners to him. Tony Blair’s embrace of the Libyan despot was matched by the fawning over his family by Hillary Clinton and the desire of the west for trade deals and strategic alliances
At the same time the supposed hero’s welcome received by Megrahi on his return to Libya was shown to have been fake news which the British and Americans were aware of. But they were never going to allow truth to stand in the way of an opportunity to heap opprobrium on Scotland.
That’s why, 30 years on, Lockerbie remains even more imprinted in my memory. But I’m humbled by the courage and humanity I saw displayed by the people of Lockerbie and those who attended at the tragedy.
Questions remain over the conviction of Megrahi but whilst I’ve never believed him to be the bomber, he most certainly was no innocent abroad. He was the highest-ranking official Libya would release and the lowest one the west would accept.
But the UK and USA know the full story, even if a court never will, having their spies and even getting their sources out. Sadly, that’s why the conspiracy theories will run for ever with me now part of them.