Opinion: Releasing Megrahi was the right thing to do

The release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the Lockerbie Bombing in which 270 people died,  on compassionate grounds is almost always described in the media as a controversial decision but I think it was the right one.

I accept the cynical case that his release was convenient to the Scottish government in many ways: it prevented his “martyrdom” in a Scottish prison; it may have helped the lucrative business of trading with Libya; it was helpful to the SNP government’s wider aims to
remind everyone about ways in which Scottish and English law (and, by extension, Scotland and England) differ. But none of these influence my opinion that his release was justified on the stated grounds of compassion.

To justify this, I think we only need to ask one question: what would have been gained by keeping him in prison for the last three years? Among the purposes of prison are protecting the public from further crimes by the same criminal, rehabilitating the offender, deterring others from committing similar crimes, and retribution for the crimes already ommitted.  The first purpose had already been served. This terminally-ill man was clearly of no danger to the public in any country.  He was also clearly beyond any point of rehabilitation.  We can reasonably assume that the prospect of being released once terminally ill doesn’t much influence the decisions of those who seek to blow up airliners. And so we are left with retribution.

The desire for retribution is an understandable human response, but it seems to me to be to be an overwhelmingly negative one. Indeed, it’s one that all the major religions urge their followers to resist. Even if there were an equivalent punishment – in the sense of “an eye for an eye” – for the murder of 270 people, carrying it out wouldn’t bring them back to life, nor necessarily even give any meaningful comfort to their families.

An alternative option is mercy, and in a case like this, where it simply involves allowing a terminally-ill man to die in his own country, it comes at no real cost to anyone. It shouldn’t be confused with forgiveness; he’s still a murderer and his conviction still stands. One definition of mercy is this: the exercise of self-control by people who possess power over others. That is the sort of thing that I think we should encourage, from our elected leaders as much as from anyone.  And that is why I believe that, even though he wasn’t as close to death as it seemed at the time, and despite the ugly spectacle of his welcome back to Libya, releasing al-Magrahi was the right thing to do.

* Malcolm Wood is a LibDem member in Edinburgh West, and former GE candidate in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

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  • To my mind he enjoyed far too much mercy given the crime for which he was convicted.

    But I’m saying that with hindsight. The medical opinion at the time was that he would only live another 3 months, not another 3 years. The decision was the right one at the time.

  • The case against him was fairly thin..
    The forensic evidence was suspect, the identification (12 years later by a Maltese shopkeeper, who ‘thought’ he recognised him but couldn’t even remember the year he sold him the clothing), a key witness who later admitted he’d lied, etc.
    Had the appeal proceeded there was a strong possibility that the verdict would have been overturned; that would not have politically acceptable (certainly to the USA).

    I’m with Joe Otten on this.

  • “The medical opinion at the time …….”

    Actually, we don’t know exactly what the medical opinion was at the time, the SNP govenment has never released it. It was based on the prison service’s director of health’s assessment , however the 4 cancer specialists he consulted refused to back his 3 month prognosis (which would have been known by the SNP govenment).

    But I am also with Joe Otten, if the conviction was sound he should have been kept in prison but the evidence was certainly questionable.

  • ‘The punishment wasn’t severe enough’ crowd need to ask themselves if they think he was acting alone, if not they should then ask themselves why those who set the whole thing up, possible Gaddaffi, were never properly punished and it was taken out on al-Megrahi, a foot soldier if he was guilty, a miscarriage of justice if he was not?

    And that goes for all those Americans who criticised Scotland while their own government was trading oil with Libya.

  • I read in this week’s Bromsgrove Standard a moving interview with a local former GP, Dr Jim Swires, whose daughter Flora died in the bombed aircraft. Dr Swire explained how sad he feels at the death of a friend, Megrahi, whom he last visited in the early spring to say his farewells. The two hurt men had been in touch regularly since the trial and Dr Swire believes that an innocent man was convicted of teh bombing. He tried repaetedly to reopen the case, pintin gout that evidence such as the break in at Heathrow airport where the plane was housed overnight, had not been pr4esented in court. Surely a dying man would have told (maybe in his will?) if he had known who did it /therefor I suppose that he did not know and was not involved. The friendship of two men, apparently on opposite sides, says far more than any of us can say.

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