Compassionate release: Scottish Parliament makes little impact

Scottish Parliamentary questions to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in a session for which it had been specially recalled on 24 August 2009 failed to shake his basic position on the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

The MSPs' questions were basically rather repetitious: (1) what led to and what were the consequences of the meeting between Megrahi and MacAskill? (2) why was the compassionate release not to a place in Scotland? (3) would there be any leak inquiry over the early reports that Megrahi's release was imminent?  (4) what did the Cabinet Secretary think about Megrahi's welcome in Libya? 

The answers were actually mostly in Mr MacAskill's opening statement – itself basically a repetition of what he said when announcing the release on 20 August, resting on the planks of due process and Scottish values tempering justice with mercy even when the compassion shown did not appear to be reciprocated.  On (2), the Cabinet Secretary pointed to police advice that release of Megrahi to a hospice would have required the attendance of 48 police officers to ensure security, and this and the probability of a media scrum in and around the hospice with concomitant effects on other patients led to his ruling it out as a possibility.  Those who asked questions on this failed to suggest what practical alternatives there might have been.  In general, the questions were not clever; and the MSPs failed to follow through on some of the points that emerged, preferring to read the questions they had so carefully prepared earlier rather than build on the answers Mr MacAskill had given when they were asked earlier by others.

The main blows landed on the Cabinet Secretary seemed to this observer to be these:

(1) the guidance on how to handle prisoner transfer agreements, while requiring the Minister to receive representations from the prisoner (whose consent to the transfer would not have been required), says that these representations will be in writing, so no actual meeting is required by those guidelines.  Mr MacAskill's defence is that the meeting was requested by Megrahi and that the principles of natural justice were followed;

(2) he wasn't able to say that all existing documentation (including any notes taken at the meeting in Greenock prison) would be released, although he said that as much as possible would be; nor would he say that there would be any further publication of or inquiry into the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission report which led to Megrahi's ultimately aborted appeal;

(3) he could not say what would happen if Megrahi failed to comply with the condition of his release that he hold a monthly video conference with East Renfrewshire Council social work department;

(4) he did not say that there would be any leak inquiry.  This is interesting, because Scots Law News has heard that the source of the original leak to the BBC was in London; but perhaps that is all part of the exciting speculation which has characterised so much of the media discussion in this case.

Mr MacAskill did say that he regretted the way in which Megrahi had been welcomed in Tripoli, which came about, it appears, even although both he and the Foreign and Commonweralth Office of the UK Government had apparently asked Libya to avoid such scenes in the event of release.

In the end, then, Mr MacAskill seemed to hold his ground; but the Holyrood show has not quite brought the story to a final conclusion.