Thursday, 20 August 2009

Releasing Megrahi

Legally, and quite possibly in reality as well, Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi will die a guilty man. His action, in the face of approaching extinction, to drop his final appeal means that today's decision to release him was technically unconnected with his actual guilt or innocence. But of course, things are not that simple. If he was guilty, then to release a man with the blood of 270 innocents on his hands, even on compassionate grounds, is dubious in the extreme. Such a man deserves to die in jail. But if, as many including some families of Lockerbie victims appear to believe, there are such doubts about his guilt that he ought never to have been convicted, then to exercise the prerogative of mercy was the least that Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill could have done.

The trouble is that we just don't know. That being the case, and so long as there remains a scintilla of doubt about the conviction, it must be right to free him. To allow an innocent man to die in prison is far worse than to allow a guilty man a few weeks of undeserved freedom. That is still true even if the probability remains that he was, in fact, guilty. Megrahi had, after all, been granted a fresh appeal at which all unresolved questions about the trial and the evidence which convicted him would have been aired. At that point, had the conviction been upheld, then all thoughts of compassionate release might validly have been cast aside. But Megrahi, and the Scottish justice system, were not granted the time to resolve these issues. Neither his release nor his death will grant closure to the families or to society as a whole; nor will they end the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the case. Even if he had died in prison, questions would have remained. What matters, then, is not the place of Megrahi's demise but that the facts that would have been considered at his appeal be looked into with due thoroughness. MacAskill was right to call for a full inquiry.

He was right, too, to make a long and detailed statement explaining his decision. Whether the decision itself was right or wrong, MacAskill's speech was one of the most impressive I have heard from any politician for many years. It was balanced, cogent, in places deeply moving, eloquent in its delineation of the dilemma that is always involved in tempering justice with mercy. Too often in recent years, debate on crime and punishment has been reduced to a Dutch auction between politicians using the rhetoric of toughness for naked personal and party advantage, stoking up fear of crime, cynically exploiting the pain of victims, politicising what should be a neutral and rational system of criminal justice. The result has not been a significantly lower crime-rate, but it has led to an unsustainably large prison population, at great cost to the public finances, to the erosion of both trust in the courts and mutual trust between citizens, to the dismantling of civil rights that were once taken for granted, to a fervid, paranoid atmosphere in society as a whole.

Most recently, we saw a typical piece of opportunism from one of the leading modern exponents of cyncal politics, Jack Straw, overruling the Parole Board just so that he could make some holier-than-thou remarks about the wickedness of Ronnie Biggs; only to be forced into a U-turn a few weeks later when the facts of the train-robber's condition, and the futility and expense of keeping him guarded in his bed, became too obvious even for most tabloids to ignore.

Now compare what MacAskill said today:

The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

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.

But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.

Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

With these words, MacAskill allowed the law, for once, to take priority over political consderations. And he rose to the ethical challenge most politicians these days fail, of facing down the demands of the righteously indignant, of articulating afresh the principle which stands at the core of civilisation - that separates the civilised from the barbarous, indeed - that sometimes justified anger must be put aside, that justice, while necessary, is not always sufficient.

Predictably, the decision has gone down badly in the USA. There were last-ditch appeals from Hillary Clinton to prevent the release, and just yesterday it emerged that seven senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, had written to Mr MacAskill urging him to keep Megrahi behind bars. I do wonder what they were playing at. Private representations, cogently made, might have had some effect on the Scottish minister's decision. Public demands, intemperately worded, were more likely to prove counterproductive: it won't have done MacAskill any harm in his native land to be seen to have stood up to American bullying. We must assume, then, that the American interventions were made largely for public consumption, in the knowledge that they would not sway the Scottish decision-makers either way.

Finally, on the unanswered questions. I'm certainly not in a position to cast judgement on whether the conviction was sound. The evidence against Megrahi was circumstantial; but he was also the only person against whom there was any substantial evidence at all, and the judges who decided the case were, I assume, neither dishonest nor stupid. One thing should be obvious, however, and that is that Megrahi was no conventional terrorist. He was an agent employed by the Libyan government, a government long involved in acts of terrorism (not least though its funding of the IRA), and a regime led, now as then, by Colonel Gaddafi. If Megrahi bombed flight 103 he did so on Gaddafi's orders. That fact, though, has been conveniently forgotten, especially now that Gaddafi is such a good friend of British and American business interests. Megrahi's trial, after he was surrendered by Libyan authorities who must know the truth of his guilt or innocence, was an important part of the realpolitik that has transformed Gaddafi from international bogeyman to something more closely resembling an eccentric and indulged uncle, lightly mocked for his drag-queen costumes and coterie of female bodyguards but no longer placed in the same villainous category as Kim Jong-Il or the ayatollahs. In other words, Megrahi was either a scapegoat or a fall-guy. Either way, the people truly responsible for the atrocity that took place over Scotland more than twenty years ago have not been, and never will be, punished.