Will the National Transitional Council hand Megrahi over to the USA?

Scotland may well find itself facing another diplomatic row with the United States of America. New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg have called on the Libyan National Transitional Council to hand Lockerbie-bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi over to the United States. Until yesterday it was easy to dismiss this call as just another stunt by vote-hungry US Senators but with the National Transitional Council (NTC) on the cusp of full control of Tripoli it has become a question that warrants some consideration.

Of course, legally and politically the situation is far more complex than Lautenberg and Menendez would have us believe. Leaving aside the dubiousness of the original conviction there are questions as to jurisdiction, international law, United States law, as well as the diplomatic, political and practical considerations.

At first glance jurisdiction seems simple. The flight blew up shortly after crossing the corner of the Solway Firth into Scotland and fell out of the sky towards Lockerbie and Langholm. Ergo, the bombing of flight Pan Am 103 is subject to the criminal law of Scotland, right? Well, things are slightly different where aircraft are concerned. The United States has never been shy about extending its jurisdiction extra-territorially, and the Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft 1963 creates the so-called “Aircraft Jurisdiction”. The Convention provides that the Country in which an aircraft is registered has jurisdiction over criminal acts while the aircraft is in flight or on the surface of the high seas. The United States has therefore always claimed jurisdiction over the bombingof flight Pan Am 103.

However public international law also comes into play where the Lockerbie trial is concerned. The United States along with the United Kingdom jointly sponsored Security Council Resolution 1192, binding members to accept the jurisdiction of a Scottish Court constituted in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands as the trial venue for Megrahi and his co-accused Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. The United States cannot unilaterally ignore this resolution, though as a permanent member of the Security Council it could propose a resolution overturning it. Without a further resolution, as Professor Robert Black points out, the Federal Government would not only be in breach of International Law but also of Art. VI, Clause II of their own Constitution.

But wait! “What about double jeopardy?” I hear you ask…

The famous double jeopardy rule contained within the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution is not as airtight as it first appears. The dual sovereignty exception, which was developed by the Supreme Court in order to protect the rights of the federal government and the states to prosecute crimes independently of each other, appears to have been extended to foreign prosecutions [U.S. v. Richardson 580 F.2d 946 (9th Circuit 1978)]. Therefore provided the United States remains in compliance with its international obligations there is no bar on Megrahi standing trial again in the U.S.

So handing Megrahi over to the U.S. to stand trial is, theoretically speaking, possible in law however the politics make things even more difficult. The Obama administration is understandably keen to avoid being seen to be flouting Security Council Resolutions, so if they wanted Megrahi back they would have to have the acquiescence of fellow permanent member, the United Kingdom – but would they receive it?

In both Government and Opposition David Cameron has been clear about his objections to the release of the Lockerbie bomber. He has continued to maintain that he felt it was wrong that Megrahi was released though has never stated that he believes he should be returned to prison (despite what his spokesperson seemed to think today). The political row that returning Megrahi to the United States would create would be one that I believe David Cameron would wish to avoid.

Alex Salmond appears to relish in the controversy his Government has created. He has succeeded in putting successive UK Governments in a tricky-spot over Megrahi, and in attracting the ire of Hillary Clinton has been elevated to the status of a world statesman. I do not believe David Cameron would put Whitehall on yet-another collision course with Holyrood, particularly given the concessions the UK Government has already made to the Nationalists. Nor would Cameron wish to further enhance Alex Salmond’s quasi-Presidential status in the run up to a referendum on Scottish Independence.

From a practical perspective – at present we do not know where Megrahi is. Megrahi was released on license and returned to a Government, which for the most part doesn’t exist any more. East Renfrewshire Council, the local authority responsible for monitoring Megrahi’s release on license, admits it is in “uncharted territory” in monitoring his license and is urgently trying to make contact with him.  Furthermore Tripoli could remain in turmoil for some time to come and Megrahi may well slip through the net.

Finally, given the uncertainty as to what kind of state may emerge in Libya, there’s no guarantee that the new regime will be any more acquiescent with the United States than its predecessor. Even if they manage to find Megrahi they may not hand him over. And given that it took the joint efforts of the United Kingdom, the United States, the United Nations Security Council and the passage of more that ten years to extradite him the first time around – Senators Lautenberg and Menendez may have to accept that Megrahi will never see the inside of a prison cell again. To paraphrase Kenny McAskill: the next judgment Megrahi faces will almost certainly be that of a higher power.

The above post was written for Better Nation.