How should one react to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi? Not easy.
Well, for some, it’s simple. For those waiting for him at the airport in Tripoli, the reaction appeared to be jubilation. Reports suggest he will be feted as a hero by many Libyans in the last few months of his life. For some of those who lost a loved one on Pam Am flight 103, the reaction is outrage and talk of ‘compassion’ sticks in their throats. I can certainly understand this latter reaction. The airport jubilation is harder to fathom. Some Libyans, bizarrely, waved Scottish flags to welcome home a man convicted of killing a number of Scottish people (189 of the 259 people of board the plane were American. I don’t have an exact figure for Scottish deaths, but there were some, both on the plane and in Lockerbie itself). You may wave our flag, folks, but you’re crazy if you think that went down well here.
Still, complexity abounds. Jim Swire reiterated what seems to be the predominant view of those in Scotland who lost loved ones when the plane tore through Lockerbie: that Megrahi was stitched up, that whatever his involvement, he wasn’t the mastermind behind the bomb. Senior members of the Scottish Government have spoken of the need to show compassion, even though Megrahi showed none himself, even if it means him serving only eight years in prison for the indiscriminate murder of 270 people. He is going to die very soon, of course, but dying in Greenock prison is a very different death than dying among his family as a national icon.
The moral issues at the heart of this affair are hard to deal with. I was leaning to the side of compassion. The guy is dying, after all. Is there anything to be gained from being hard-hearted? But those scenes of triumph at Tripoli airport test the limits of compassion. They shouldn’t make any difference, and yet they do. We expect a more muted entry from someone who killed 270 people and has been granted unexpected freedom on compassionate grounds. And if he was innocent and really deeply regretted the deaths caused by the bomb, we’d expect a more muted entry still.
He wouldn’t be free if he hadn’t contracted terminal cancer. Those who say he should have died in prison – is this a ‘let him rot in hell’ position, or a genuine sense that justice would have been served? I guess that will vary from person to person. And what about compassion? I heard two quotes yesterday from relatives of people who had died: one said that there was no reason to extend compassion towards someone who had shown none; the other said that if human beings lose their sense of compassion, even in such circumstances, what remains? What hope is there?
Interesting to see how politicians have reacted. The UK Government in Westminster needs to come under scrutiny. The USA claims that assurances were given by the UK Government that Megrahi would never be released, but the UK declined to make representations to the Scottish Government’s committee considering Megrahi’s release – other than to assert that there was no legal barrier to the release and to deny that assurances had been given to the USA. Libya have oil and gas, let’s not forget that.
Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice minister, backed the release on compassionate grounds. Previously, a Prison-Transfer-Agreement had been agreed between Libya and the UK Government in Westminster. Given that Britain’s jails only housed one Libyan prisoner (guess who!), you can see what that Agreement was aiming for. The USA claim they were given assurances by the UK that Megrahi would finish his sentence in Scotland, but the UK deny these assurances were ever given. However, it seems clear that the UK Government were looking for ways to shift Megrahi from UK soil. Why? Couldn’t be the oil, could it?
Kenny MacAskill may well have felt bound to release Megrahi – either due to compassion (the public face), or due to pressure from Westminster (the private reality), or by a combination of those. Commentators seem to have interpreted Kenny MacAskill’s somewhat religious language as an attempt to appeal to the USA. Well, maybe. I see it differently. I don’t know if he really wanted to release Megrahi at all and his appeal to a ‘higher power’ to give out justice may be a coded way to suggest his own dissatisfaction at being forced into making the decision. MacAskill followed up his ‘higher power’ statement by saying, ‘He is going to die’, leaving open to interpretation whether he was suggesting God would judge him in the after-life, or that Death was a higher and more final power than any human court or politician. He chose his words very carefully, I think.
There has been heavy pressure from the USA not to release Megrahi. The Labour Government has refused to make a public statement (other than to say that it’s been a matter for the Scottish administration to decide on) because, presumably, they want to open up greater trade with Libya without upsetting the USA. Only Conservative opposition leader, David Cameron, has been opportunistic enough to side with the USA (to cement that so-called ‘special relationship’ for when he becomes Prime Minister, no doubt) and to criticize the Scottish Government publicly. Well, at least we now know, if we didn’t before, where his priorities lie.
A website has appeared urging you to Boycott Scotland! Ah yes, boycott our evil regime… You know, some people are just plain idiots. Yes, boycott us, but carry on trading with China and other regimes which destroy human rights on a daily basis. Duh…
We may never know what happened on Pam Am flight 103, but this case has opened up wounds that have never truly healed. It also asks serious moral questions on the limits of compassion. It could, and probably should, open a can of worms on how such decisions may really have less to do with morality and more with political and financial expediency.
[edit, 22.8.09: from the BBC News - "The Lockerbie bomber's release was raised at trade talks between the UK and Libya, Colonel Gaddafi's son reportedly tells Libyan TV." It's that 'reportedly' that gets me. Either he did tell Libyan TV or he didn't, surely.
OK, getting to grips with this tangent now - Gadaffi’s son is Seif al-Islam: "In all commercial contracts, for oil and gas with Britain, (Megrahi) was always on the negotiating table," Mr Islam said told Libya's Al Mutawassit channel.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "No deal has been made between the UK government and the Libyan government in relation to Megrahi and any commercial interests in the country."
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband earlier rejected suggestions the UK pushed for Megrahi's release to improve relations as "a slur on both myself and the government".
Notice one thing – neither the Foreign Office nor Miliband actually deny al-Islam’s claim. The FO say ‘no deal has been made’ (not that it wasn’t on the table at negotiations – they are hardly likely to put such a thing in writing, are they?) and Miliband simply says that the accusation, if factual, is a slur (and so it would be if this Government had any reputation left to discredit). But he doesn’t directly deny the accusation.]