Mandela defies a complacent elite

Observations on Scottish justice

It looked like incongruity run riot. Nelson Mandela at Barlinnie Prison? Expressing sympathy for the Lockerbie bomber? What was going on?

Well, who could blame the most famous inmate of Robben Island for his sympathy for a Libyan, held in isolation, thousands of miles from family and friends?

Understandably, Mandela still feels gratitude for the support Libya gave the liberation struggle in South Africa. It was the friendship established then that helped him to persuade Colonel Gaddafi to hand Abdelbasset al-Megrahi over to Scottish justice, thus achieving what neither the Foreign Office nor the US State Department could.

But there is more. The great hero of the anti-apartheid struggle actually believes Megrahi may be innocent.

Is it conceivable that a Scottish court could perpetrate a miscarriage of justice?

The blind self-assurance of Scotland's legal establishment, which sees itself as infinitely superior to a British system tarnished by the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, is shattered. The tired argument which insisted that Scottish courts could never make such mistakes, as they did not accept uncorroborated confessions, is as dead as William Wallace.

Donald Dewar established the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in April 1999. It currently has more than 150 cases under consideration. The commission faces a heroic struggle: the Crown has fought it at every stage, for example, in the high-profile case of the "ice-cream wars" convicts Joseph Steele and Thomas T C Campbell; and in the case of Stuart Gair, absurdly convicted in 1989 of the murder of Peter Smith in a Glasgow lavatory.

The point is simple. Statute has changed, but not the mindset of lawyers and politicians (in Scotland, often the same people), who believe that admitting error is a more terrible sin that committing it.

Mandela has scented truth. How could the Lockerbie trial and Megrahi's subsequent appeal ever be deemed fair? There was no jury; intelligence evidence was scandalously dismissed. This was victor's justice on a monumental scale, representatives of the Scottish statelet acting as prosecution, judge and jury - and still, incredibly, claiming neutrality when the most basic safeguards of their own system of criminal justice were absent.

Mandela wants a fresh Lockerbie hearing by the Privy Council or the European Court of Human Rights. Scotland's legal establishment is digging in to fight him all the way. From the justice minister, Jim Wallace, up, the Scots understand that Mandela's involvement poses a challenge to a closed, powerful and complacent elite.