The Scottish Government and the UK Justice Ministry have been releasing documents relating to the release of Abdelbasset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber.
The Sunday Times this week suggested that the UK Government went back on a commitment to the Scottish Government that it would attempt to obtain an exclusion from the proposed Prisoner Transfer Agreement for Al Megrahi, so that there would be no obligation for him to be returned to serve his sentence in Libya. This they did in what they said was the national interest, ie lots of money for BP for oil exploration in Libya.
That, as far as we can see from the correspondence is pretty much the case. It looks to me like Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill had a fit when they saw what the proposed PTA involved, which MacAskill confirmed in his statement on 20th August. The Scottish Government asked the UK Government to negotiate an exclusion. Jack Straw went to the Libyans and asked very nicely if Al Megrahi could be excluded. They said "No." Then Jack Straw decided for whatever reason that it wasn't worth pursuing and gave up, albeit reassuring the Scottish Government that they would have the final say on any application.
What I think this means is that it is entirely hypocritical of the Scottish Labour Party to take such a hard line against the decision made by MacAskill. If Jack Straw didn't think that an exclusion for Megrahi was worth making a fuss about, then they can't claim to have consistently opposed any actions that would make his departure from Scotland more difficult.
Now, what of the Sunday Times headline that Megrahi was "set free for oil"? The correspondence between Straw, Salmond and MacAskill proves that Straw decided against making an issue of exemption for Megrahi, but how can that be relevant when MacAskill rejected the inevitable application for transfer which came from the Libyan Government?
But then, of course, it's possible to argue his release on "compassionate grounds" might actually be a conspiracy between the UK Labour Government and the SNP Scottish Government. For that you would have to believe that Kenny MacAskill, having made strong representations on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement, would do what Jack Straw told him on the compassionate release application. No, me neither.
What the Sunday Times is conveniently forgetting as it tries to paint a sensationalist picture of events is that, actually, there was a darned good reason for Megrahi to be released - that he was terminally ill with a short prognosis of around 3 months. Another darned good reason is that his family were not in a leafy Glasgow suburb, but back in Libya, and had been for the last 7 months because of, get this, "their visa restrictions." See page 8 of this bundle of documents. Now, who controls entry into this country? That would be the UK Labour Government. I think I'd like some more information on why the Megrahi family had to go home at a time when their relation had been handed a terminal diagnosis. Why were they not allowed to stay here? Would they have been allowed back in to see him before he died? I've certainly seen applications to visit sick relatives in this country turned down for all sorts of reasons, despite the overwhelming compassionate grounds and evidence submitted so it's by no means a sure thing that they would have been.
So the Justice Secretary was presented with a medical report saying that the man had a short terminal prognosis and his family, including his 5 children, and his 95 year old mother, were thousands of miles away. All the advice he was given from doctors and social workers was that he should grant the compassionate release application.
As I write this, Nick Robinson is on the BBC trying to make a big fuss about a Libyan claim that Gordon Brown did not want to see Megrahi die in jail. For a start, I don't think that's an unreasonable thing to say. I don't think we should incarcerate terminally ill people who are about to die, no matter who they are. Brown had nothing to do with the decision, though, and he is certainly not in a position to give Kenny MacAskill orders.
In the end of the day we have a decision made to release a prisoner on compassionate grounds and the evidence justifies the decision Kenny MacAskill took.
I do think, however, that the Labour Party in general and Iain Gray in particular should just shut up. It's hypocritical to say the least to criticise MacAskill's decision when they were not prepared to make a bigger deal about an exemption from the Prisoner Transfer Agreement for Megrahi and when it was UK Visa restrictions which meant his family had to go back to Libya.
Is MacAskill in the clear, then? On the actual decision, I'd say yes, he did the right thing. No surprise there.
I'm still critical of the process and in particular of the visit he made to Megrahi, which I still say was unnecessary. As far as I know, Ministers and Secretaries of State do not visit prisoners in jail. I still do not think that MacAskill was obliged to meet him personally - and it looks from the correspondence that it was the Scottish Government that gave Megrahi the option of a visit. I want to know more about exactly what was said at that meeting and nothing that has been published today leaves us any the wiser on those points.
If I were an MSP voting in the Holyrood debate tomorrow, I would still be asking these questions and I would expect proper answers to them. However, on the principle of whether it was right to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, I would, regardless of anything any whip said to me, completely support what Kenny MacAskill did.