It appears that the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is likely to announce today the release on compassionate grounds of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi. British justice ministers are obviously feeling quite compassionate this summer.
I’m against this move. Some will argue that al-Megrahi is innocent anyway, and that his original, unusual trial and conviction in 2001 (in a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands without a jury) was unfair. Maybe; but the way to settle that would be by appeal, an appeal al-Megrahi has now abandoned. It would be quite wrong to allow any doubts about his guilt to affect a decision that should be purely about whether his terminal cancer means he ought to be set free.
I don’t think it does. Professor Karol Sikora, one of Britain’s leading cancer specialists, may think al-Megrahi has only a “very short time to live”; no doubt he’s right. But I don’t take as gospel everything doctors say, however expertly and sincerely, about prisoners they examine. Anyone who remembers the Ernest Saunders case is always likely to wonder whether a prisoner is really as ill as his doctors say, and I think Professor Sikora goes too far in pressing the Scottish government to make an “urgent decision”. His role is simply to give his medical prognosis: I’d have more confidence in that if he left it to others whether and when any decisions should be taken. In any event, this does not seem to be a case, like Biggs, of a man confined to his bed unable to speak. Indeed it seems the prisoner was able to speak to the minister only days ago.
If al-Megrahi is flown to Libya tomorrow, as it seems is intended, then he’ll be beyond the reach of any license such as applies in Ronald Biggs’s case. A miraculous recovery, or even simply an easeful and longer than expected departure from this world, would take place far beyond the practical reach of Scottish justice. And al-Megrahi is a much worse offender than Ronald Biggs. Like Biggs, he owes us years of his unserved sentence. Unlike Biggs, though, he also murdered 270 people – most of them Americans.
Which is why American politicians have reacted angrily to the prospect of the release, Hillary Clinton saying release would be “absolutely wrong”, and a group of senators including John Kerry and Edward Kennedy writing to MacAskill this week to make their opposition clear. I understand their view, and I agree with them.
If the decision is part of a deal with Libya, perhaps relating partly to oil, then of course it would be disgraceful and shameful. But it’s disgraceful and shameful anyway. Had all those 270 dead been Scottish, does anyone think Kenny MacAskill would be doing this?