Scottish Parliament at 20: Release of Lockerbie bomber focused world’s attention on Holyrood

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi being greeted on his arrival in Tripoli on 20 August, 2009 after his release. Picture: AFP
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi being greeted on his arrival in Tripoli on 20 August, 2009 after his release. Picture: AFP
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The controversial release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi saw Holyrood scrutinised like never before, writes Chris McCall

The decision to release from prison the only man ever convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing remains perhaps the single most controversial moment in the Scottish Parliament’s first two decades.

Then justice minister Kenny MacAskill told MSPs on August 20, 2009, that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi would the next day be released on compassionate grounds from HM Prison Greenock after serving just eight-and-a-half-years of a life sentence.

The release prompted a furious response from many opposition politicians across the UK. David Mundell, then shadow Scottish secretary, described it as “a mistake of international proportions”.

But the biggest reaction came from the United States. Of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing, 190 were American citizens.

No decision taken by a Scottish minister had ever been scrutinised by the world’s media in such a way before. Events at Holyrood were not normally condemned by the US Government.

MacAskill informed the parliament that al-Megrahi would be freed on compassionate grounds and allowed to return home to Libya after being diagnosed the previous year with prostate cancer.

“I am conscious that there are deeply held feelings, and that many will disagree whatever my decision,” he said.

“However, Mr Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”

Many in Scotland and across the UK had long harboured doubts regarding al-Megrahi’s conviction in 2001 by a special Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. The decision to release him was only the latest chapter in a long-running legal battle which began on that fateful night in December 1988.

But those doubts were never shared by the majority of victims’ families in the US.

“I don’t know what his political future will be, but the name ‘MacAskill’ will go down in history for his role in a miscarriage of justice,” said Frank Duggan, a US lawyer who chaired the Victims of Flight 103 group.

There was considerable anger at the nature of al-Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds. The Libyan had always denied his involvement in the bombing, which some interpreted as a refusal to acknowledge his crimes.

Susan Cohen, whose daughter Theodora was one of many students killed on the flight, said: “This has been despicable. He was convicted of mass murder, but you’ve let him out on the most sickening grounds possible.”

Then US President Barack Obama condemned the decision at the time and doubled-down on his comments almost a year later when David Cameron first visited the White House as prime minister.

“All of us here in the US were surprised and disappointed and angry about the release of the Lockerbie bomber,” said Mr Obama. “My administration expressed very clearly the objections both prior and subsequently.

“The bottom line is that we (the US and UK Governments] all disagree with it. It was a very poor decision and one that ran not only contrary to how we should be treating terrorists but didn’t reflect the pain that the families still suffer to this day.

“This was a heartbreaking decision for them that opened a whole host of new wounds.”

Al-Megrahi was convicted following one of the most complex trials ever staged. He was sentenced to 27 years, while his co-accused was cleared. His lawyers then successfully applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission and the case was referred back to the Court of Appeal in 2007.

Over a year later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. By the time his second appeal got under way, his condition had deteriorated.

A few weeks later an application to have him transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya was lodged, and at the same time al-Megrahi applied to be freed on compassionate grounds because of his health.

He died in 2012, maintaining his innocence until the last.

Chris McCall