Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Megrahi - The Aftermath

Busy week and busy weekend, hence the recent radio silence. However, I can't let the events of the past few days pass without comment.

I remember vividly the night that Pan-Am Flight 103 came down, and like everyone, the horror of that evening lives with me still. In the years which have passed since, I​'ve come to admire the great dignity, persistence and vigour with which representatives of the relatives, particularly Dr Jim Swire, have conducted themselves. However, following Megrahi's diagnosis and prognosis, Kenny MacAskill had 4 choices open to him – just as any Justice Secretary of any party would:

1.Leave Megrahi to die in Greenock Prison.
2.Send him home to Libya under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated by Tony Blair.
3.Place him in secure custody in a safe house or hospice in Scotland.
4.Grant him compassionate release.

The Scottish Prison Service is not well placed to provide the palliative care which we are told Megrahi now needs. As such, option 1 was not a choice which could be described as humane, compassionate or realistic, at least by any code of ethics or morality with which I'm familiar.

The US Government had made plain its implacable opposition to prisoner transfer – given the UK Government's apparent reluctance to confirm or deny what, if any, understandings were in effect with the Lybian and US Governments regarding this, it easy to see why this was a less attractive option than either 3 or 4.

After seeking guidance from Strathclyde Police, it became clear that a minimum of 48 police officers would have been needed to provide adequate security were Mr Megrahi to leave prison custody but remain in Scotland. This would be impractical enough for any safe house option, but completely inappropriate in the context of a hospice where other patients expect to be able to die with dignity in the company of their closest relatives. As such, it was in my view rightly dismissed, which left compassionate release as the best and most humane option.

With dreary predictability, the charge of naivety has been thrown around liberally, particularly in the aftermath of Megrahi's welcome home. This is self-serving nonsense, for whatever you think of the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the rightness or wrongness of that decision is not affected in any way by the manner in which he was received back in Lybia, however inappropriate we regard that welcome to have been.

I don't envy the position which Kenny MacAskill found himself in. However, genuine naivety is to pretend that any of the other three choice open to him could have been made without consequences. In particular, it would have been na├»ve to allow Megrahi to return to Lybia under the prisoner transfer agreement – the UK Government's favoured option – only perhaps to see the Lybian Government release him themselves. Far better, then, to release him ourselves from his sentence in view of his medical condition and likely life expectancy.

This was not, as some have claimed, about trying to make a play on the international stage. Rather, it was a temporary overlap between the sphere of international relations and the Scottish legal system, the likes of which we will be very unlikely to ever see again under devolution in its present form. It was inevitable that post-devolution, the decision would find its way into the in tray of a Scottish justice minister at some point.

In terms of political response, the muted criticisms from President Obama and Hilary Clinton were to be expected – they could hardly be expected to say nothing, after all. At home, David Cameron succeeded only in further burnishing his credentials as an opportunistic lightweight. From the likes of Tory MP Daniel Kadjinsky, on Radio Scotland yesterday evening, we hear nothing of greater lasting substance than the plaintive ululations of a post-asteroid dinosaur, not long for Scottish political ecology. And from the other main party leaders in Holyrood, in the words of yesterday's Scotsman editorial [no recent friend of the SNP administration], we saw accusations of opposition “behaviour which was less to do with principle and was more influenced by party political point scoring.”

As squabbles go, it's been all very Scottish – depressingly so - but domestic opinion appears to be hardening in favour of MacAskill's decision – something which I'll bet has only been quickened by some of the less temperate responses we've seen to date. Pride isn't a word I'm wont to use in this case. However, I'm certainly pleased that expedience was rejected in favour of principle, and that we have a justice system in Scotland that whatever its flaws, recognises that justice differs from vengeance, and which can rise above our baser instincts to leave room for compassion, even to those who have shown none for their victims.


Jim said...

As good a post as anywhere and a great deal more sensible than most of our newspapers managed.

Dramfineday said...

Well, I'm proud of Mr Mac A and you are right - it is extremely disappointing to see the usual party hacks in action. It'll be interesting next week, I see John Prescott is coming out to "back" the decision. What now for Scottish labour and Ian Gray?

jacob watson said...

I say burn him

Roland Hulme said...

Why exactly was Option 1 not taken? Megrahi murdered 250 people. I'm against the death penalty, but I'm also strongly against letting murderers out for 'compassionate' reasons when they showed no compassion for their victims.

When Megrahi was released, I was utterly disgusted and ashamed to be British. I can't understand the mindset that would think it was an acceptable option. Prisons offer medical treatment. Other prisoners die each and every year from natural causes. Megrahi should have been one of them.

When he arrived in Libya, the celebrations alone should have warned us that we'd made a BAD decision. It's shameful.

Richard Thomson said...

Hi Roland,

Option 1 could have been taken. However, I'm pleased it wasn't, for the reasons I've given in the article. I don't happen to agree with you, but it should be possible for good people to disagree over this.

Regarding the scenes at his arrival in Lybia, as I said in the post, whatever you think of the decision to release him on compassionate grounds, the rightness or wrongness of that decision is not affected in any way by the manner in which he was received back in Lybia, however inappropriate we regard that welcome to have been.