As MSPs prepare to debate the release of al-Megrahi, Holyrood analyses the controversy
The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast in 1988 reflected on the 300th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of King William and Queen Mary of Orange. It finally laid to rest the ‘enterprise of England’, she said, and gave a particular direction to our history which was to lead to the development of parliamentary democracy and the tradition of political and religious toleration which Britain enjoys today.
The Queen later added an extra message to her pre-recorded broadcast, following the explosion of an aircraft over Lockerbie, a train crash in Clapham which killed 35, and a devastating earthquake in Armenia, which killed 25,000.
She went on to say that centenaries may seem rather arbitrary occasions, but they nonetheless prompted us to look back.
“When we do so,” she said, “we can draw hope from seeing how ancient enmities have vanished; and how new nations have grown and established themselves in vigour and wisdom.” Equally, she said, they made us “reflect on injustices and tragedies and inspire us to do our best to learn from these as well.” Her mention of the anniversary of the so-called Glorious Revolution, when King William and Queen Mary were invited to accept the thrones of England and Scotland, in the same speech that marked the horror of Lockerbie now seems a little hollow as the catfight over the decision by a Scottish minister to release the man convicted of that atrocity has torn the nation apart, opened old wounds and rages on the domestic and international stage.
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, lest anyone should forget, was the man convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity to occur on British soil. On December 21 1988 Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, ripped apart by a bomb. It killed 270 people; 259 passengers and crew as well as 11 residents of Lockerbie.
Al-Megrahi was later convicted of murder for his part in the attack at a specially convened court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands and sentenced to life imprisonment with a punishment tariff of 27 years.
When he was released ten days ago from Greenock prison on compassionate grounds, because he is suffering from prostate cancer and believed to have just three months to live, by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and allowed to fly home to his family in Libya, he had served just eight years – or fewer than 14 days per victim. He was greeted in Tripoli by a triumphant crowd, some waving Saltires.
Whether Scotland’s Justice Minister was right to grant compassionate release to a man found guilty by due process of law of killing 270 people may be a matter for debate but what is absolutely certain is Scotland is in the news for all the wrong reasons.
In America the decision was greeted with outrage; 189 of the dead were American citizens flying home for Christmas. President Obama said: “We have been in contact with the Scottish Government, indicating that we objected to this and we thought it was a mistake.” And Robert S. Mueller, III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said: “We are deeply disappointed…Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those victims today, for the ongoing pain and loss caused by this horrific attack,” Other international reaction was mixed but much more muted. Indeed it has been suggested that Scotland may well have done itself some favours in terms of European relations.
The Italian newspapers simply reported the facts without comment and most of it actually centered on the fact that Berlusconi was going to Libya for 40 year celebrations.
The Times of India wrote: “Justice does not mean revenge. While the condemnation, particularly from those who lost family members, is understandable, the decision is a difficult but correct one” and the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented: “To reprieve a seriously ill prisoner is an act of humanity”.
Nearer to home, the Belfast Telegraph felt MacAskill deserved some credit and said: “If commentators and columnists had taken a few minutes on a popular internet search engine, they could find the terms of the Act in full. They will then see that due process led Mr MacAskill to the conclusion he did. To have done otherwise would have been to be partial in the application of law.” The Irish Examiner commented that: “It is difficult to understand what is to be gained – other than revenge – by keeping a dying man behind bars. Equally, it would be unwise for anyone, American or Libyan, to confuse mercy with weakness. Surely mercy will do more to build bridges than revenge. If not we are all living in a world as dark and dismal as Guantanamo was not so long ago.” At home, however, the decision has not only split UK politics but it has split party lines.
The Prime Minister has refused to criticise the decision directly, although he said he had no part in the decision taken and condemned the scenes that greeted Megrahi at Tripoli airport.
Former minister John Prescott said it was a decision for the Scottish Government and must be respected: “I don’t have any objections. If the man is dying, if compassion is part, and the medical authorities then get proof to that effect, then it’s a decision for the legal authority,” he told Sky News.
“Scotland has always had a great deal of independence of its legal authority, so we have to respect that decision.” UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw, when asked whether it was right for MacAskill to visit Megrahi in Greenock prison during the decision-making process, said: “That was his decision. If you are asking me if I have ever visited a prisoner in jail who has applied for compassionate release, the answer to that is no.” The decision too has split the Scottish Parliament. In two days time there will be a debate about the decision to free Megrahi and while a vote of no confidence in the Justice Secretary is believed to have been avoided, it is still sure to be a bruising affair for MacAskill. The arguments for and against have already been well rehearsed in the media and it is clear that with a few exceptions such as Malcolm Chisholm and Patrick Harvie, the consensus among the opposition is that he got it wrong.
The reasoning for this is different, depending on which political colours you fly but in general, MSPs appear to think it was wrong because of the international – or for that read American – fall out and the way Scotland could be harmed in the diplomatic and economic arenas within that particular special relationship.
But what is clear from the people on the street who are questioned, it would seem, every day for one radio or television broadcast or another or reflected in the letters pages of our national dailies, is that the electorate think it was right to send him home to die and recognise the heavy burden that the Justice Secretary carried. So let’s examine where we are and why.
The Government said it had consulted widely before MacAskill made his decision on applications for Megrahi’s compassionate release or his transfer to a Libyan jail.
MacAskill said he rejected the application for a prisoner transfer on the basis that there was a division of opinion between the UK and US Governments about what had actually been agreed concerning Megrahi’s imprisonment. However, after taking medical advice, which suggested that three months was a “reasonable estimate” of the time Megrahi had left to live, MacAskill granted him compassionate release. He ruled out the option of the Libyan being allowed to live in Scotland on security grounds and stressed that he accepted the conviction and sentence which had been handed to Megrahi: “Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them,” he said.
“But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.” He continued: “Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available. For these reasons and these reasons alone, it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die.” It is this reasoning that is now being picked over by opposition MSPs hoping to score a hit on a Justice Secretary labelled a soft touch on crime. MacAskill has previously been under fire for his handling of various justice issues including abscondees, early release and his failure to turn up at a knife crime summit.
But they may be disappointed. MacAskill is a straight hitter, a meticulous lawyer and the pedantics of whether he felt it was too onerous for Strathclyde Police to take on the responsibility of guarding an international terrorist in a house in the suburbs of Glasgow or whether one or two doctors recommended that Megrahi had just three months to live (or the fact that Straw was talking about compassionate release applications when in fact MacAskill had visited Megrahi as part of the prisoner transfer application, which requires the prisoner to make representations if the application is made by a third party) is becoming altogether amateurish given the gravity of the decision that had to be made.
Will Scotland suffer lasting damage on the international stage? Will the electorate punish the SNP Government? Will MacAskill’s political career endure? At this stage, the answers are as uncertain as the exact date of Megrahi’s death. But the world moves on and already it is no longer front-page news. Wednesday’s debate has the potential to move us onto the next stage; away from blame and name calling and onto a reflective, more mature questioning of how the lingering questions over the Lockerbie atrocity can be laid to rest and how these decisions should be made in the future.
In a statement released after his departure from HMP Greenock, Megrahi continued to protest his innocence.
He said: “The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction.
“I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted.
“The choice which I made is a matter of sorrow, disappointment and anger, which I fear I will never overcome.”