Vote! Was Scottish Government right to release Lockerbie bomber?

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?

20 thoughts on “Vote! Was Scottish Government right to release Lockerbie bomber?

  1. Compassionate release, if applied at all, should only apply to people convicted of crimes that did not physically hurt another person. Emotional/psych hurt should absolutely be considered in absence of physical hurt. So, no – it wasn’t the right decision, IMO.

  2. .Posted by Austin Sheridan MSYP on Thursday August 20 2009…Yes the Scottish Government have decided to let Al-Megrahi commonly known as theLockerbie bomber out of prison on compassionate grounds due to his illness. Kenny MacAskill decided after hearing the views of victims and doctors that it would be reasonable to release Mr Megrahi and let him return to Libya but with conditions set by the Scottish Government.My personal view on the matter is that I think it shows that Scotland has compassion were needed the US said that they would not be happy if the Scottish Government made the decision to release Mr Megrahi. This shows that the Scottish Government will not be dictated to by a superpower like the US.

  3. The problem I have with this issue is that it is impossible to judge the release decision without it being clouded by your view on his innocence or guilt. For some it seems clouded by political allegiance and for politicians by political expediency.

    There will always be a whiff of expediency about the decision but publication of the SCCRC would blow that away.

    • Actually I have no views on his innocence or guilt and it does not matter to me either way. Even if he is guilty the idea of keeping someone who is riddled with cancer in prison conditions is an appalling prospect. It’s appalling for the prisoner – and equally appalling for the prison staff.

      • Indeed which is why I attempted to separate out the two issues – we need to have confidence in the procedure surrounding compassionate release for all prisoners, whom by their very conviction have been found guilty. The issue surrounding his guilt or innocence is an entirely separate one.

  4. I fully agreed and still agree with the decision but I am not altogether happy with the way it was presented and is now being defended.

    For a start I think the Scottish Government should have been a bit more aggressive in defending the integrity of the prison and social work staff who recommended the release. I understand why they have taken quite a low key approach to suggestions of a deal. When people read about politicians denying things there is tendency for them to believe that there must be some truth in whatever is being denied – and often for good reason! So I fully appreciate why the SG has avoided getting into a debate about process but has simply said that due process was followed. Nevetheless it is pretty outrageous that some MSPs have come close to hinting that there was something not right about the process and are therefore questioning the integrity of prison service staff and East Renfrewshire social work staff. They must know that a conspiracy involving these bodies is just so unlikely as to be impossible – perhaps the general plethora of conspiracy theories around the Lockerbie bombing has gone to their heads.

    Secondly I feel that they have not really made it clear enough that Megrahi’s life expectancy would have been three months had he stayed in prison. No-one could say what his chances were outside prison. Essentially the decision was taken on the basis that he was too sick to be in jail. The prison governer, medical and social work staff were all agreed on that.

    • Agree on both points – I hope I didn’t come across as questioning the integrity of the process, simply that if this longevity after compassionate release is not just related to Al-Megrahi then there may be an issue with what that process consists of. I have no doubts the process, as is, was followed to the letter and that the release was entirely justified. but we are being made to look a little silly at 3 months turning into 2 years plus. And your second point is absolutely spot on – and research backs this up I think – that people ahve lower life outcomes in prison than out, with their families. Wish I’d thought of it!

  5. Ghaddafi is still playing him like a puppet. It’s in Ghaddafi’s interests to keep him alive as long as possible. Cancer treatments nowadays are a world away from even two years ago. Scotland definitely occupies the moral high ground.

  6. Without a doubt yes.

    The one thing I would have changed was to allow the appeal to go through so that by now we would be talking about the exonerated Al-Megrahi.

  7. Scottish judges in the Netherlands acted on the evidence presented to them [via Scottish advocates] by Westminster and Washington.They were told they had to make a decision on that presented evidence regardless of any doubts as to the veracity of such evidence.
    In other words Westminster and Washington framed the Scottish legal system in much the same way they framed Megrahi.
    We now have Westminster and Washington castigating the Scottish legal system,the Scottish government and by implication the Scottish nation itself for Megrahi’s release,whilst conveniently forgetting their role in the framing of an innocent man in the first place.Their hypocrisy is breathtaking – only outdone by the grotesque glee Scottish unionists are taking in doing down the whole of Scotland.

    • Yep so why is a Nationalist SNP government covering all this up for the unionist establishment – to deploy the common parlance? Thta’s the bit I don’t understand…

      • Could I suggest that the SG with a lawyer as Justice minister cannot question the integrity of our justice system, now remove the lawyer and have a layman in that post problems might be exposed.

      • Ooh, whatever are you getting at cynical highlander? But i do think you may have a point…

  8. This is a problem not confined to the Scottish Govenment. Both the UK government & the US Government are unequivical of Megrahi’s guilt, but then again there is a vested interest in Megrahi remaining guilty as questions would be asked of the conduct of previous governments ( I posted on the 5 questions the US administration needed to answer last year – http://humbug3.blogspot.com/2010/07/5-questions-americans-should-answer.html). The reasons for postponing any public inquiry become more and more flimsy by the day, we are now onto the 5th Prime Minister to block an Inquiry. There should be one.

    • Oh I agree wholeheartedly but there are certain things that the Scottish Government could do to fix or at least acknowledge and explore some of the issues surrounding the whole case. I would like to see my government take the lead, where it can, on resolving some of the mysteries and uncertainties in this case, is essentially my central point.

  9. Completely agree that Megrahi is fortunate enough to be receiving higher quality treatment in Libya, however decision to release on his prognosis at time surely still stands. There is little doubt that if he had remained in Scotland he would unlikely still be alive. Are you suggesting that a prisoner is only released on medical grounds if he stays in scotland?

    Bigger issue for me is that he is so visible attending rallies in Libya and sticking two fingers up to us.

    • Paula I agree – I think it was right to release him on the evidence available at the time and the recommendation made about his life chances. And that is the supreme irony – that had he been released into the community in Scotland he would be dead by now. It suits Ghaddafi very well for al-Megrahi to be afforded the best medical treatment money can buy. But the prognosis and how it was made has been questioned, and it would be right to critically examine compassionate release procedures and how medical evidence is obtained etc for future cases. It will either shut the doubters up or acknowledge a systemic problem that can readily be fixed.

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