Monday, 29 August 2011

What to do about Megrahi?

Even now that his protector and former boss has been ousted from power - the man who may have ordered him to commit mass murder and then, some years later, calmly handed him over to the Scottish legal system for a show trial, only years afterwards to welcome him home as a hero - the "Lockerbie bomber" Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, remains still stubbonly and tenuously alive. Few could have predicted that he would live to see the collapse of the regime he served at such personal cost, or that there would be demands to return him to prison two years after his controversial release and twenty-one months after the predicted date of his death.

So what to do about him? He is, it is said, close to death. For real, this time - though that, too, has been said often enough in the past. The new Libyan authorities (if they can yet be thus described) are said to be loath to return to his erstwhile jailers. Apart from poetic justice and better medical care for Megrahi, it's hard to see what would be achieved by any such move, even if a legal basis could be discovered for it. And what, precisely, would that be? The release was not conditional on his dying within a set period. He did not lie about his illness, even if the doctors were wrong about how long he had left. Does being wheeled out, on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask, at a pro-Gaddafi rally represent a breach of his parole conditions? I doubt it.

It is a mess, though. At the time of his release, I argued that the decision was the right one - not just because he was dying, but because there was sufficient doubt about his guilt to make it a real possibility that an innocent man would die in prison. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime does not change that. Various defectors are said to have admitted Libyan involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, but as yet these remain unsubstantiated rumours. Shortly before Megrahi's release in 2009, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had raised serious questions over some of the key evidence and approved a new appeal. The case against Megrahi was, in any case, weak and over-reliant on the evidence of single, probably compromised, witness.

This doesn't mean that Megrahi was necessarily innocent. He was, after all, an agent of a government notorious at the time for its sponsorship of terrorism and revealed today (for those who hadn't already noticed) as a murderous tyranny. The leading alternative theory is that the plot was masterminded by Syria, another and rather more efficient tyranny whose leader is still clinging onto power: the final truth may only emerge when both regimes are toppled, and perhaps not even then. Whichever is the case, Megrahi was either a patsy or a fall guy. The true culprit was the government that gave the orders.

Officially, the decision to release Megrahi was taken purely by the Scottish justice minister, purely on medical advice, and solely on grounds of compassion. But his release was at the very least connived at by a UK government keen to improve trade links with a then-rehabilitated Gaddafi regime. It was a murky and somewhat disreputable deal, even if the release itself was defensible. Megrahi's survival and Gaddafi's collapse have destroyed both the release's rationale and whatever moral basis it may once have possessed.

The best solution would have been to have continued the appeal process, expedited if at all possible. We now know that Megrahi would have lived to see its conclusion and would today be either legitimately free or else legitimately dying in jail. It was never entirely clear why the appeal had to be abandoned as a condition of Megrahi's release, or why it could not have been heard sooner. Perhaps the appeal would have been too embarrassing for everyone concerned, especially the US authorities, but this is speculation.

If Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi were to be returned to a Scottish jail, it would be as little more than a macabre trophy. Perhaps some would like to see him paraded, Roman-style, in triumph through the streets of Edinburgh, with David Cameron following behind in a gold-plated chariot (and Nick Clegg, no doubt, whispering in his ear, "remember thou art mortal!") But it is perhaps sufficient punishment for Megrahi that he should have lived to see the destruction of the regime that employed him and, at the end of his life, accorded him the status of a hero.