It’s doubtful if anyone in the Scottish Government has baked a cake but the milestone of the two-year anniversary of the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is being marked in many quarters. For good or bad.
The First Minister released a typically combative statement claiming that his Government, and in particular the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, has been vindicated in its decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber early on compassionate grounds. Scottish opposition parties, as usual, have piled in to play the man not the ball.
Far more lucid and knowledgeable commentators than the burd have contributed to the debate: Robert Black QC’s excellent blog rounds up the best of them. All are well worth a read.
But it is useful to consider where we are now, for Al-Megrahi’s release has resulted in a range of issues coming to the fore.
Serious doubt is now being cast on the medical evidence upon which al-Megrahi’s release was based. Predicting survival times from cancer can never be an exact science – there are always those who defy the odds and the prognosis. But the Libyan has clearly benefited from the best medical support money can buy, support that ironically isn’t available to Scots suffering from cancer treated here at home. Which is not – at least in this blogpost – to make a plea for the same expensive wonder drugs to be made available on the NHS, but to suggest that at the very least, we need to review the procedures that govern the assessment of prisoners who have a terminal illness and how applications for compassionate release are processed. The public needs to be assured that there are consistent measures applied to all prisoners in all such circumstances – and that they work. Is Abdelbaset al-Megrahi the only prisoner released to have lived way beyond the prognosis presented? If not, then we might have a systemic flaw in our justice system rather than the single conspiracy some have latched on to. And while there are many issues related to this case that we might struggle to fix, this isn’t one of them. This one is entirely within the gift of the Scottish Government.
More and more people believe that al-Megrahi did not do it, that the conviction was based on unsafe evidence and that we need a full public inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the case. While some relatives refuse to believe – understandably – that the wrong man might have been convicted, simply wanting “closure”, each year, more join the ranks of doubters. For them, “closure” will only be achieved if they can get at the truth. It is a terrible situation for all relatives of those who died as a result of the bombing to find themselves in. And none of them is getting any younger: the need to be able to move on with their lives becomes more urgent with the passing of each December, and now August, anniversary.
Like many, I signed the petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for an inquiry. This whole episode has brought the Scottish legal system into disrepute and the only way to cleanse it is to open up the process and work out – independently, publicly, transparently – if and where the conviction is flawed. For if a wrongful conviction was obtained and if – as the Scottish Sun alleges today – evidence was suppressed in this case, then it is likely that such problems bedevil other cases and convictions.
The only way to fix problems is to expose them to scrutiny, analysis and solution. If we need to overhaul our criminal justice system as a result, then so be it. I’d rather have the reputations of a few at the top dismantled and that of our justice system temporarily embarrassed, than allow a potentially broken system continue to deny justice. We need to believe in the efficacy of our institutions, for our own good.
Like many, I struggle to comprehend the Scottish Government’s insistence on the safety of the Lockerbie bomber’s conviction (when all the evidence suggests otherwise) and its efforts to protect our legal system from scrutiny. Indeed, its willingness to defend the Scottish legal establishment on this and the likes of the Nat Fraser case bemuse me. Why does the SNP so willingly defend one of the bastions of the establishment that in the past, have done it few favours? Less partisanly, does Scotland want to limp into independence with a legal system that appears not to be fit for purpose? For make no mistake, the issues relating to the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi will not go away on their own.
Each anniversary of al-Megrahi’s release allows such issues to resurface and to gather momentum, without any hope of satisfactory conclusion. Every time they do, the matter becomes more newsworthy, not less. Do the existence of unresolved issues have an impact on public opinion on the Scottish Government’s original decision to release al-Megrahi? Or do people stand by the rationale that was applied at the time – that Scotland is a compassionate nation that tempers its justice with empathy? This weekend, the Scottish Government has played the politics rather well – it assumes that many still support the original decision. But do they?