Labour reeling: last ditch smear attempt fails as Megrahi files finally vindicate SNP


A last ditch attempt at smearing the Scottish government on the Megrahi issue has failed spectacularly after official documents exonerated the SNP’s handling of the affair and revealed the previous UK Labour government did “all it could” to facilitate the release of Al Megrahi.

A report by top Whitehall Civil Servant Sir Gus O’Donnell has vindicated claims made by the SNP over its handling of the issue and revealed that, far from not interfering in the process, the Labour party did “all it could” to help facilitate the release of the man known as the Lockerbie bomber.

The report follows the recent publication of secret files by controversial website Wikileaks that showed Labour Ministers had advised the Libyans only one week after Megrahi’s illness had been diagnosed.  The Scottish government has also published documents detailing the communications it had with senior Labour party Ministers.

US relative Stephanie Bernstein, who lost her husband in the downing of Pan Am 103 said: “It’s disgusting, absolutely appalling. It looks as if the Labour government were acting as attorneys for the Libyans.”

Frank Duggan, the Washington-based lawyer who is representing US families, said the politicians’ behaviour had been “disgusting”.  Mr Duggan criticised Kenny MacAskill for releasing Al Megrahi but said his conduct had not been as bad as the Labour government representatives.

Mr Duggan added that “…they [the SNP] were not as bad as the British diplomats and officials who claimed to have no part in this decision but are now shown to be advisers to the Libyans one year before the actual release of the murderer.  It is disgusting but not unanticipated.”

The report also makes clear that the Scottish government were not influenced by the then UK Labour government’s desire to free Megrahi and that there was no evidence to suggest BP business interests played any part in the decision to release him on compassionate grounds.

Responding to Sir Gus’ report a Scottish government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has consistently made clear that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s decision to grant Mr Al Megrahi compassionate release was taken following due process and following the precepts of Scots justice, without regard to foreign policy, commercial or any other considerations.  The findings bear out the consistency of the Scottish Government’s position in all respects.”

The spokesperson added: “The review also confirms that, in contrast, the UK Government’s position on the negotiation of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya was influenced by commercial considerations, including lobbying by BP.  What has not previously been public knowledge is that commercial and other considerations led, in late 2008, to a change in the UK Government’s policy to favour the release of Mr Al Megrahi although they attempted to conceal that policy from the Scottish government.”

The fresh revelations pose serious questions for Labour politicians in Scotland who have, from day one, mounted a vociferous campaign against the SNP over the compassionate release of Mr Megrahi.

On 21 August 2009 Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray said: “If I was First Minister, Megrahi would not be going back to Libya.  The decision to release him is wrong.  He was convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in our history.”

In a speech to Holyrood on 2 September 2009 Mr Gray said: “It is now almost two weeks since the Justice Secretary took his decision to release Mr Al Megrahi and return him to Libya.  I said then that I believed that was the wrong decision and nothing we have heard in the past fortnight or this morning has convinced me otherwise.”

In December last year Labour’s Justice spokesman Richard Baker said: “As I said at the time, the decision to release Megrahi was wrong.   He is the worst murderer in Scottish history.”

Commenting on the new revelations, Mr Baker insisted that there had been no hypocrisy on the part of the Labour party over their attacks on the Scottish government.  However Mr Baker may well have caused problems for himself and his party by repeating on Radio Scotland discredited newspaper smears that the Scottish Government were trying to gain more powers by agreeing to release Megrahi under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA).

Smear attempt

These smears surfaced at the weekend after an English Sunday newspaper the Mail on Sunday carried an article claiming Alex Salmond had sought a deal over the secret PTA agreement originally hatched by Tony Blair.  The catalyst for the claims was an article in the Vanity Fair magazine.

The ‘story’ suggested that the Scottish government had offered a deal on the PTA in return for help with compensation claims expected from prisoners forced to ‘slop out’ in Scottish prisons.  The smear also made it onto the pages of two Scottish newspapers.

However it has emerged that the story was based on an internal email sent by former senior Labour party official John McTernan to two Labour colleagues, Mark Davies and Tom Greatrex.  In the email Mr McTernan mentions a ‘deal’ and refers to Scottish Ministers having the final say on prisoners.  The email, dated 9th November 2007, refers to a meeting between Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill.

Newsnet Scotland can reveal that the ‘deal’ mentioned by McTernan was a demand by the Scottish government that Al Megrahi not be included in the PTA.  Far from wanting to strike a deal that would have let a fit and healthy Al Megrahi return to Libya (as Labour wished), the SNP were opposed to such a move and wanted Megrahi removed from the PTA altogether.  Something that Labour’s Foreign Minister Jack Straw originally agreed to but would later backtrack on.

Newsnet Scotland has also learned that less than one week before, Jack Straw privately revealed that the Libyans had no expectation of Megrahi’s release.  Newsnet Scotland can also reveal that, when asked if Alex Salmond had in fact suggested the deal alleged by the newspaper articles, Straw would neither confirm nor deny it, saying: “My conversations with Alex Salmond were private.”

Mr Salmond’s spokesman Kevin Pringle has since described the claim of any deal with Labour to release Megrahi on a PTA as “complete and utter garbage without a shred or scintilla of truth.”

The article in Vanity Fair was authored by David Rose and contains some glaring errors.  In the article Rose claims that a report on Megrahi’s cancer by one Dr. Karol Sikora , dated July 30 2009, was taken into account by Kenny MacAskill.  In fact Dr. Sikora’s report played no part in Kenny Macaskill’s deliberations on Megrahi’s application for compassionate release.

Commenting on the newspaper claims a Scottish government spokesman said: “This story is simply wrong, just as the previous – and different – version by the same author in Vanity Fair was also wrong.  Anyone who knows anything about the issue knows it to be a total misunderstanding.

“The issue in 2007 was not about release of Al Megrahi but the technical issue of whether to exclude Al Megrahi from the face of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement – as the Scottish Government demanded – and the UK Government seeking to renege on their commitment to do so on the basis that the issue was academic as they would publicly say that Scottish Ministers had a veto over any such transfer.

“The UK Government seemed to think they could achieve this by attempting to link it to other issues under discussion at that time.  However, our concern was that even if we exercised the veto and rejected prisoner transfer for al Megrahi, we could be subject to judicial review in the absence of a specific exclusion.

“Therefore, and as the record shows clearly and consistently, the Scottish Government maintained our opposition to the PTA itself and to Al Megrahi’s non-exclusion from it, and criticised his non-exclusion in extensive correspondence in 2007 and 2008 with Jack Straw and the Prime Minister, from both the Justice Secretary and the First Minister.

“We made it clear in every single piece of correspondence and meeting that Scottish Ministers would judge the issue on the precepts of Scots Law and not on any other considerations.”

To have a clearer understanding of the origins of this latest failed attempt at targeting the SNP over Megrahi we need take a look at the background of the three people involved in the email.

The sender, John McTernan, was advisor to Tony Blair when the secret ‘Deal in the Desert’ was struck.  McTernan (seen in the video below) claimed last year that the PTA agreement, hatched between Blair and Gadaffi, had nothing to do with oil deals and was in fact a “reward” to the Libyan leader after Libya dismantled its WMD programme.|150|100{/youtube}

The main email recipient Mark Davies was special adviser to Jack Straw from 2005 to 2010, crucial years as far as the ‘Deal in the Desert’ is concerned.  The second recipient, Tom Greatrex, is now Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and was a former advisor to ex Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy.

Last year Mr Greatrex was named by The Sun newspaper as the source of another smear after a leak compromised the Queen’s security.  The  ‘Balmoral Paths’ smear was intended to be used to attack the SNP, and indeed Labour MSPs at Holyrood demanded the resignation of SNP MSP Roseanna Cunningham when the story broke in The Daily Record, however things went quiet when The Sun named Mr Greatrex as the leak source.


These latest Megrahi disclosures are hugely embarrassing for Labour at a time when the party is seeking to install Iain Gray as Scotland’s next First Minister.  Many will question why he allowed the party to politicise such a sensitive issue, repeatedly making comments that would ultimately prove to be at odds with the actions of his own leadership.

The events are certain to have damaged the Holyrood Labour leader and come barely a month after he made insulting ‘ethnic cleansing’ remarks about Montenegro that caused a diplomatic row.

Mr Gray now faces accusations that he was either completely ignorant of what his London leaders were up to and has been made to look foolish or he was in fact aware of Labour’s ‘double dealing’ and is guilty of a serious lack of judgement and quite staggering hypocrisy.  The latest comments from his Justice Spokesman Richard Baker suggest that Mr Gray is guilty of the latter.

This poetic justice for Labour must surely bring their shameful politicising of this incident to a close and will hopefully cause reflection on the part of very many Scottish journalists and BBC Scotland correspondents who caused outrage by acting as chearleaders against their own Scottish government and whose own reputations hang a little limp today.

There still remains though the small matter of possible injustice and the questions that surround the safety of the conviction of Mr Abdelbaset Al Megrahi.