Friday, August 21, 2009

Scottish Compassion, American Anger

The only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing is back in his home country of Libya, where he will live out the last weeks of his life. Former Libyan secret agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi has terminal cancer. He's also the biggest mass murderer in British history, yet Scotland's justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has still decided to release him on compassionate grounds because of his illness. Most of the Lockerbie victims were American, and President Obama has led criticism of the decision, describing it as a "mistake."

It's not unusual in Scotland for prisoners, even serious criminals, to be released to die at home in this sort of situation. And because the bombing took place over a Scottish town, and al-Megrahi was later convicted by a Scottish court, it's the Scottish legal system, not that of England or the US, which is important here. With so many precedents in Scotland for showing this sort of compassion, Mr MacAskill is on solid ground legally to let al-Megrahi go.

Politically it's a different matter. While many of the British families of Lockerbie victims have expressed doubt about al-Megrahi's conviction, that's not the case in the US, where there remains a widespread belief that the right man was convicted, even though the evidence against him is circumstantial and thin at best, and there's surely no way he could have acted alone. This means US politicians are inevitably going to say al-Megrahi should die in jail. The images of al-Megrahi being greeted as a hero on his return to Tripoli don't help, and they've given plenty of fodder to the predictably furious commentators on US cable news.

Whether al-Megrahi really was the bomber or not cannot have been relevant to Mr MacAskill's decision. In the eyes of Scots law, he was. So, that Mr MacAskill resisted all this huge international political pressure is to his credit. It would have been far easier to let al-Megrahi die in Greenock jail. It seems that there's been no deal between Scotland and Libya, Scotland is getting nothing (except American scorn) for this act of mercy. Politicians often talk about making tough decisions, Mr MacAskill has actually gone ahead and made one. President Obama might not like it, but that's just tough. It's not up to him.

There are still plenty of questions about Lockerbie which remain unanswered. Who helped al-Megrahi? Did the Libyan government order the attack? Was it a different government, possibly Iran? Did al-Megrahi and Libya actually have nothing to do with it? Despite al-Megrahi's release, we seem no closer to finding out the answers to any of these. Perhaps the renewed interest in Lockerbie will flush out some new information. But with Libya keen to forget about the whole episode and continue its new, friendlier relationship with the west, I wouldn't bet on it.


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. The US reaction - from the liberal left like Hilary Clinton, Kerry, Obama - has been a revelation to me. Our troops are being killed in support of our American allies and "boycottscotland" is the thanks we get?

Anonymous said...

The right wing has its undies in a wad over this one - talk radio last night was one caller after another reminding us of the brave boys of WW2 saving usfrom oblivion, and how they would love to put a bullet in his head, or shoot down the plane ('the pilots should have known not to take that job, so its t heir fault') - in other words, very violent vitriol. Odd that it takes a secular people like the Scots to teach the very christian america a thing or two about the tenets of their own faith. All talk and no trousers, they are!