Willie Rennie used his slot at First Minister’s Questions yesterday to call for an enquiry into the way the Lockerbie prosecution was carried out. I think this is very sensible given the six concerns raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Governments are not very good at admitting to their mistakes – and most especially, justice systems are amongst the worst offenders. People can be deprived of their liberty for crimes they didn’t commit. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, and when concerns are raised about the validity of prosecutions, it’s really important that they are held to account. We’ve all seen cases where it’s gone wrong – the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four.
With the Lockerbie prosecution, so much doubt remains over things like a break in at Heathrow where the luggage from Flight 103 was in transit, queries over the identification of Megrahi by the Malta shopkeeper and other things.
We need to be sure that the Crown Office and the Police did everything they should have done and if they didn’t, there needs to be consequences and change.
What was interesting about their exchange yesterday is that Salmond was quite serious in his response. There was none of his usual bluster and point scoring and he actually answered the question:
Willie Rennie: The First Minister will have seen the open letter from 40 leading figures that calls for a Scottish public inquiry into the Lockerbie prosecution. The group made it clear that it wants a Scottish inquiry, whether or not there is an appeal.
The Scottish Government’s Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission identified six grounds for appeal, including the conduct of the Crown Office, withheld evidence and doubt about identification.
The First Minister has said that he would be prepared to co-operate with a United Kingdom inquiry. If he has no objection in principle to an inquiry, will he agree to hold the Scottish inquiry that the group wants?
The First Minister: The place where an individual’s guilt or innocence is determined is a court of law. As Willie Rennie should know, the relatives of Mr al-Megrahi have the ability, if they so choose, to go back to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission and seek further leave to appeal. That is the process that can be followed. The Parliament would do well to take the view that a court of law is not just the best place but the only place to determine guilt or innocence.
Willie Rennie described the SCCRC’s report. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is part and parcel of the Scottish judicial system. It exists to provide checks and balances in the system. It is right and proper for the SCCRC to refer cases back to the court of appeal, if it thinks that there is reason to do so. That does not automatically mean that cases will be successful on appeal—we should look at the record to see that.
Mr Rennie should in fairness note that, now that we have the full detail of the SCCRC report—as he knows, I campaigned for years to have it published—we can see that the forensic trail that led to Malta and Libya was upheld in the SCCRC’s exhaustive review. That is not always clear in the reporting about the report.
Willie Rennie: This is not just about guilt or innocence; it is also about the conduct of the Crown Office. Surely, a liberal society should be prepared to look hard at its justice system, even if it is worried about what it might find. Whether or not that is determined surely cannot be left in the hands of a family somewhere in Tripoli. If the First Minister chose to act on the inquiry, he would have the support of Desmond Tutu, Terry Waite, John Pilger and many others.
This is not a normal case; it is Scotland’s biggest terrorist atrocity. These are serious questions that have been raised by serious people, and the world is watching. Will the First Minister act?
The First Minister: I have no axe to grind as far as the Crown Office of 10 years ago is concerned. This Government was not in office then. There is no reason for me to be unreasonably protective of law officers, the Lord Advocate and members of the Crown Office from that time. However, the basis on which we must proceed is to see whether the appeals are exhausted within the system. It is not something that we can shrug aside and say that it should not be up to the family of Mr al-Megrahi whether they want to go back to the SCCRC. That is the process of Scots law. That is what the SCCRC is there to do.
Given the exhaustive nature of the SCCRC report, the evidence that it compiled and the witness statements that it took over a period of years, we have every reason to suppose that it will do its job properly, as it clearly has done before.
I ask Mr Rennie to remember that the SCCRC is part and parcel of our judicial system. It is not something that is outside the judicial system. The SCCRC is part of the judicial system.
The people whom Mr Rennie cited genuinely believe that Mr al-Megrahi was innocent. That is why they are arguing that case. The place to determine guilt or innocence is in a court of law. Other people who want an inquiry into Lockerbie are not looking for an inquiry into the points in the SCCRC report; they are looking for an inquiry into the ultimate responsibility for Lockerbie. That touches on matters of huge international import, and it would be beyond the ability of a Scottish inquiry to summon witnesses and compel evidence and so on in that context. That is why we have said, clearly, that we would co-operate with any such inquiry. However, if an application to determine the guilt or innocence of Mr al-Megrahi comes forward, that is a matter for the SCCRC, which is an independent body, and that is the process by which things can be properly pursued.
I don’t think an investigation into the conduct of our prosecuting services should be dependent on whether Megrahi’s family decides to appeal. If they have done things wrong, it’s important for all of us to identify weaknesses in the system. After all, you might find yourself charged with something you hadn’t done one day. You would want to be confident that you could expect a fair trial.
“A liberal society should be one that is prepared to look hard at its justice system, even if it is worried about what it might find.
“I have called for a Scottish public inquiry into the Lockerbie prosecution. “The First Minister has the opportunity to shine a light onto the conduct of the Crown Office, which for years has been left blemished by the six separate grounds of appeal identified by the Government’s own Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. “On matters which relate to the integrity, fairness and justice of the Scottish justice system, it is simply not good enough to leave this to a family in Tripoli.
“An inquiry into Scottish justice is not a matter to be left to a UK inquiry. It has the backing of 40 leading figures, is about Scotland’s biggest terrorist atrocity and potential flaws have been identified by the Government’s own review body. We need the First Minister to act.”