Sunday, August 23, 2009

Kenny MacAskill's decision to free Megrahi is a tribute to our decency

( source )

Nothing in his experience of life or politics could have prepared Kenny MacAskill for the walk towards that podium last Thursday and I wondered if he would endure the ordeal ahead. Scotland's justice minister, an honest journeyman in the minority part-government of a relatively unimportant country, had nothing beyond a desire to see that natural justice must prevail as he pondered his decision to show compassion to Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

This is the man whom Scots justice had found guilty of the biggest terrorist atrocity committed on these islands, the bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. He knew that his decision was being scrutinised on four continents and that his character would be trashed before the hour was spent. Yet he emerged from his trial with his stature increased and Scotland woke up on Friday with its reputation for decency and fairness enhanced.

MacAskill could have washed his hands of this issue and simply had a terminally ill man spend the few remaining days of his life in a Greenock prison cell. Few, beyond the masters of the British petroleum industry, would have demurred. Certainly not Downing Street, whose haunted incumbent would have been praying for such a verdict, and certainly not America whose default position on justice is: "When in doubt, hang them from the neck… especially if they are poor, black and uneducated." In the Arab world, there would have been desultory protests but nothing more. Baghdad, Helmand, Kabul and the West Bank are of far more pressing concern than the final resting place of a man they all wished to forget.

But this unprepossessing minister of justice sought to ignore all the serried interests of the global supermen. Instead, he found refuge in the fundamental principles of a judicial system that has served Scotland soundly for more than 400 years. For 16 years now, our statutes have given us leave to release from prison anyone who is deemed by competent medical authority to have three months or less to live. It was a concession rooted in compassion, pity and forgiveness. Few in the United Kingdom have ever taken issue with it. It is a good and just law. MacAskill simply applied it. In this case, he used it merely to allow a murderer go home to die. Before Megrahi, 23 other prisoners had been shown a similar mercy in Scotland. It was also a decision buttressed by two oncologists and two urologists who provided written documentation that, in their opinions, the Libyan prisoner was in the very last stages of his final agony.

Nor had MacAskill been party to any quid pro quo deal that involved Megrahi dropping his appeal against his original conviction in return for compassionate release. The desired outcome for the Scottish government was for Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail and for his appeal to proceed.

It was easy for them to reject the Libyan government's application for release under Tony Blair's gross act of cynicism in the desert with Colonel Gaddafi in 2005 that established a prisoner transfer treaty between the UK and Libya. Only one Libyan prisoner resided in a British jail, Megrahi, and yet the Scottish government was not consulted about it.

One senior SNP politician I spoke to last night stated categorically that no deal had been struck with Megrahi: "Politically, the worst option for us was the one chosen by Kenny MacAskill. But it was also the right and proper one and consistent with the principles this nation strives to govern itself by. What no one could have foreseen two years ago was the onset of the prisoner's aggressive prostate cancer and this changed everything."

The criticism of MacAskill from opposition parties has been pitiful. Labour leader Iain Gray wasted no time in branding the decision a disgrace, yet he and his party know that the only disgraceful act by a UK politician over this affair was Blair's deal in the desert which owed more to the interests of British petrochemical companies in securing contracts with a country which owns Africa's biggest oil reserves than to any notion of justice.

The Conservatives, in the spirit of the nearby Edinburgh comedy festival, suggested that Megrahi be made to see out his final days in a detached bungalow in Newton Mearns, an affluent suburb of Glasgow.

The Liberal Democrats are always keen to demonstrate their utter irrelevance in Scottish politics and they couldn't help themselves this time either. They could do nothing more than criticise MacAskill for dithering in the time he took to come to his decision.

Megrahi's homecoming to Libya has variously been described as triumphant and joyous, strange words to describe an event about a man about to die of cancer. Did anyone ever truly believe that there would be no fanfare for a man who swears that he is blameless and whom the country believes is innocent?

But it has been the outrage of the Obama administration in Washington that has been most difficult to stomach. Hillary Clinton's cack-handed attempt to interfere in matters under the jurisdiction of Holyrood last week was highly dubious. Scotland needs no lessons in matters of fairness from a country that has been routinely waterboarding suspects in Guantánamo Bay.

America bows to no one in the art of political expediency. Surely that wasn't North Korea, top of the league in the axis of terror, that Barack Obama's new best friend Bill Clinton was bending the knee to earlier this month, to secure the release of two US nationals. Intriguingly, neither the Washington Post or New York Times elected to devote much coverage to Megrahi's release the following day. Like most observers, they probably sense that many facts about 21 December 1988 will never emerge and that if justice truly has been dragged through the mud then the process started in the weeks immediately following Lockerbie.

The next time Clinton calls to express her disgust about the decision to send Megrahi home to die, perhaps someone in the Scottish government could ask her in return about the leniency shown to US soldiers involved in the Mai Lai massacre in 1968. And then they can remind her about the US warship Vincennes, which blew an Iranian Airbus and its 290 passengers out of the sky in 1988.

There remain some doubts about the evidence used to convict Megrahi of the Lockerbie attack, yet even if it had been tested once more at a court of appeal along with any new evidence, the decision to convict may still have prevailed.

And it is simply naive to believe that somehow all the conspiracy theories surrounding the atrocity would have been laid to rest by a new trial. But there is something worse than all of this. That somehow, even if more answers were found, the pain of those closest to the 270 victims of Pan Am flight 103 could be assuaged a little. Does anyone truly believe that somehow, even if more answers were found, the pain of those closest to the victims could be assuaged a little? Further revelations in another Scottish court will not reduce their loss or remove their hurt.


Lisa said...

Even though he is dying,he should not be trusted and he should still be monitored.

PH said...

I hope he doesn't die just to make everyone angrier :)). And when you say he shouldn't be trusted what do you mean exactly ? As if your governments have been truthful in anything they've ever done; to be trusted in this case ? The Lockerbie case is no different from Iraq's WMD lies and they are both for the same reasons .... OIL !