Compassion for Megrahi
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced his decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds on 20 August 2009. Megrahi flew home to Tripoli later on the same day.
Mr MacAskill emphasised in his speech and subsequent media interviews that his decision reflected the compassionate values of Scots law and the Scottish people. He rejected arguments that a man convicted of killing 270 people did not merit such compassion; Scots law rules said that a convicted person with less than three months to live could be released on compassionate grounds. In brief, his line was that two wrongs do not make a right. He also made clear that an application made under the prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya (negotiated, it will be recalled by Tony Blair and the Labour Government in Westminster) had been rejected. Mr MacAskill also argued that his interview of Megrahi in Greenock prison had been necessary under the prisoner transfer agreement, in order to enable him properly to appreciate Mr Megrahi's case under that agreement. There had been no deal under which Mr Megrahi had dropped his appeal in return for release.
With the aid of a stick, and hiding his lower face from the cameras with a scarf, Mr Megrahi climbed the steps to the door of the aircraft provided by the Libyan Government to take him home from Glasgow. The van carrying him from Greenock prison to the airport had been booed by a small crowd at the prison gates. The welcoming party at Tripoli airport was clearly disposed to provide a hero's welcome as Mr Megrahi, now besuited, was helped down the aircraft steps by two supporters. Flags, including a large Saltire, were waved; but the crowd at the foot of the steps looked to your reporter's eye to be measured in tens rather than hundreds. There are suggestions that Mr Megrahi will meet, or perhaps has already met, the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi – but if so, the Colonel was not on the landing strip. He may be saving himself for the forthcoming celebrations marking the fortieth anniversary of his seizure of power in Libya on 1 September 1969. It is not known whether Mr Megrahi and his return to Libya will have any part to play in these celebrations.
The American Government manifested its disapproval of the decision but President Obama's denunciation of it as "a mistake" was scarcely impassioned. Given that the release was not made under the prisoner transfer agreement, it was surprising to see the President suggest that Libya should place Mr Megrahi under house arrest. From Westminster, even more significantly, no protest at all, simply a reiteration of the obvious, that the decision had been one for the Justice Secretary alone. It was hard to resist the conclusion that in the end realpolitik prevails: improving relations with Libya and gaining increased access to its huge oil reserves matters more now than righting twenty-year-old wrongs.
On 21 August the Lord Advocate announced that she was dropping the Crown appeal against the sentence imposed on Megrahi (27 years imprisonment). The Crown Office press release read as follows:
"The Lord Advocate today announced that she has decided to withdraw the Crown?s appeal against the sentence of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. Mr Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment with a punishment part of 27 years. The Crown appealed the punishment part as unduly lenient. The Lord Advocate has now had the opportunity to consider reports regarding Mr Megrahi?s medical condition and prognosis. Mr Megrahi is now terminally ill. The Lord Advocate has taken account of the fact that he has now been released on compassionate grounds and is no longer in this country. Had he remained in custody, he would have had no prospect of serving the current punishment part of his sentence, let alone any increased sentence that the Lord Advocate was seeking. That, together with his release, means that the outcome of any appeal could have no practical effect whatsoever for Mr Megrahi."
The Scottish Parliament has been recalled to debate the matter on 24 August. The opposition parties will try to make capital from criticism of the way the matter has been handled, perhaps especially Mr MacAskill's visit to Mr Megrahi; but to Scots Law News more interesting will be how hard the push is for some sort of further inquiry into the matters raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission that underlay the abandoned Megrahi appeal. In a TV interview Mr MacAskill, proclaiming his satisfaction with the guilty decision against Megrahi, appeared to rule out an inquiry being initiated by the Scottish Government, but promised full cooperation with any inquiry from another source. It seems unlikely on all that has been seen and heard from Westminster to date that the UK Government will take an initiative in this regard; but the United Nations has been mentioned as another possibility in some quarters.
Thanks to Scott Wortley for the information that the Prisoner Transfer Agreement and the statement by Mr Straw relied on by Mr MacAskill to justify his meeting with Mr Megrahi are both on-line: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200809/jtselect/jtrights/71/71.pdf and http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm75/7540/7540.pdf.