Peter Jones: Taking a civilised stance on Megrahi

Now that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the mass murderer of 270 people on that fateful December night at Lockerbie in 1988, has been located and his seriously ill condition established, perhaps some of the near-hysteria about him can abate. This episode has done Scotland no good in the short term, but in the long run Scotland could emerge with some credit from it.

Whether or not you agree with the decision by justice minister Kenny MacAskill to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds (and many disagree, some vehemently), there is little doubt that it was done in accordance with the tenets of Scots law.

The law states that prisoners diagnosed with a terminal medical condition and whom doctors consider have only a brief lifespan left, can be considered for compassionate release so that relatives can care for them in the last few weeks or months of life. Megrahi was so diagnosed and, therefore, there was a duty to consider releasing him.

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The fact that he came from a country which has a lot of oil and gas resources and with which the UK government was anxious to do trade deals benefiting British companies is irrelevant. Had Megrahi come from a poor country where no British interests were at stake, Mr MacAskill would still have been duty-bound to consider an application for compassionate release.

The trade interest only comes into play if you consider that it played a part in convincing Mr MacAskill to grant the release request. And sure, there was the strange memo written by an aide to the UK foreign secretary which suggested that the Scottish Government was willing to let Megrahi go in return for some concessions granted to it by the UK government.

But those concessions were never granted. Neither is there any evidence that any Scottish company has won any work from Libya since the release. And Mr MacAskill has continued to insist that he took the decision he did purely on legal grounds and the commercial concerns were absent from his mind.

In the absence of any credible evidence to the contrary, I am prepared to believe him. And indeed, the case for thinking that he is lying about this rests on the proposition that the SNP government kow-towed to the UK government, which, frankly, is preposterous.

The one ground for thinking that Mr MacAskill erred in law concerns the time that Megrahi had served (eight years) of his total sentence (27 years) which, as far as I understand it, hardly fits one of the conditions surrounding compassionate release – that the prisoner should have served much of the sentence imposed.

But then, if you were in Mr MacAskill’s position and had been given the best available medical evidence that Megrahi only had three months to live, you might well have thought that the relative shortness of the time served was not a material consideration.

Mr MacAskill’s other option, which I think he should have taken, was to have released Megrahi to secure accommodation in Scotland where his family could have stayed with him and where, presumably, Libyan doctors could have treated him.

This seems to have been ruled out on grounds of expense – some 48 police officers would have been required to guard him. If so, that was a shoddy decision. For justice to be done, it has to be seen to be done and it is abundantly clear that rather a lot of people think that justice was not done. Justice is expensive, but we tolerate that luxury because it is an essential part of what makes our society fair and civilised.

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To that and only that extent, it could be argued that there was a miscarriage of justice. But to argue that, as some American senators are doing, that the simple failure to keep Megrahi in jail until he died is a miscarriage of justice, is a case which collapses under the weight of Scots law.

The demand by some US politicians, though now rendered ludicrous by the evident fragility of Megrahi’s condition and his inability to travel anywhere, that he should be extradited to the US and tried again for his crimes was always a monstrous proposition.

Not even the US judicial system, with all its faults, allows for someone already convicted of a crime to be re-convicted of it. The demand that this should somehow happen speaks of an arrogance that does America no credit – the view that all other justice systems are inferior to American justice and should be prepared to step aside when American opinion barks.

It also tells of a system where vengeance is woven into the judicial fabric. I am all in favour of punishment and, where appropriate, that reparation should be made by criminals to those they have harmed. Indeed, Libya has already made some monetary reparation to the Lockerbie victims.

But vengeance, which some seem to think is given some superficial respectability by the biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye”, should have no part in a civilised society.

Indeed, I think this is the most important part of the debate surrounding Lockerbie and Megrahi’s fate. Yes, it is an embarrassment that he has lived for two years after Scottish doctors said he only had three months to live. Yes, many will think that our politicians are simpletons who have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

But the test of a civilised society is whether it abandons that civility in the face of a grievous attack on it and descends to the level of those who have caused that injury, be they criminals or terrorists.

Scotland suffered a terrible wound that dark December night. But in the pursuit of those who caused that injury Scotland maintained its civility. Already evidence has emerged from defectors from Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime that the Scottish court which sat in the Netherlands reached the right verdict. More will doubtless follow.

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In the punishment given to Megrahi, Scotland continued to maintain its civility. And in granting him compassionate release, that adherence to civilised standards was continued. Perhaps Mr MacAskill was overly-compassionate. But I would rather live in a country that erred in that direction rather than the other.