Many moons ago, during the Falkland’s War, there was controversy over the sinking of the Argentine ship the General Belgrano in 1982. It was a massive blow to the Argentinians and hailed as a triumph for the British cause. 323 men are believed to have perished.
Like many I thought that was just another of the cruelties of war. Margaret Thatcher, whose leadership within her party had been on the wane, was re-elected on the back of a Rule Britannia frenzy. But one politician, Tam Dayell, kept asking which way the Belgrano had been sailing. He claimed it had been sailing out of the Exclusion Zone, in retreat. I soon was fed up listening to him. Hadn’t it been fair and square?
Years later he was proved right when almost casually Maggie admitted on a radio call-in show that it had indeed been in retreat. What has that to do with me? It begins with a request from a Belgian film company asking if an MSP would sponsor their award-winning film Lockerbie Revisited. Now I had listened with sympathy to Dr Jim Swire and others claiming Megrahi was wrongly convicted but I stood by the Scottish judicial system. The man should let it go, I thought. However what was the harm in sponsoring that film?
After that I could not let the conviction of Megrahi go unchallenged. There was so much that was wrong with the evidence. I became part of the Justice for Megrahi campaign and raised the issue many times in parliament. I later met him three times at Greenock prison. He was an educated man with excellent English and at the first meeting he took me through the case in detail. I told him if I had not thought him wrongly convicted I would not be there and that I would stick with his cause till the end.
At the second meeting I explained to him how Compassionate Release would allow the second appeal with evidence never to this day tested in court to be heard. I told him that the difference between this and Prisoner Transfer was the he did not have to abandon his appeal. It seemed, though I find this hard to believe, news to him. I lobbied the then Cabinet Secretary Kenny MacAskill (who now admits the conviction is unsafe) and indeed the First Minister Alex Salmond to take the route of Compassionate Release and allow the justice system in Scotland to re-establish its international reputation. It was to no avail and at the final appeal hearing in the High Court Maggie Scott QC advised the court he was abandoning his appeals (plural) as he believed that would assist him to return to Libya.
I was sick to my stomach that the Scottish establishment (and perhaps the Libyans too because they came in straight after each of my meetings) just wanted shot of this problem. The third meeting was instigated by his wife, so through him she could thank me for my support. And that is the key because for Abdel baset al-Megrahi it was the reputation not of him, but his family which mattered. I recall clearly the last words he said to me – that he did not want his children to be known as the children of the Lockerbie Bomber and for the family name to be forever associated with that crime. So as I learn that a fresh application to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has been made by victims’ relatives and his children and I have hope that at last, five years after his death and nearly 30 years after that atrocity we may learn the truth, for the sake most of all of the victims’ relatives.
And Tam Dalyell? Well I learned to keep plugging away, along with many others, and one night answered a phone call to find him on the line, thanking me for keeping going, as he did too about the conviction and I had that rare chance in life to tell him, my tenacity had been inspired by him all those years ago when he fought for the truth about the sinking of the Belgrano.
Christine Grahame is the SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale