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The Lockerbie Bomber’s Release: Right or Wrong?

In Home Affairs on August 28, 2009 at 12:02 am

On Thursday 20th August, Adbelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber, was released from Greenock Prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds. Megrahi is suffering from terminal Prostate Cancer. The question is, is his release the right thing, or should life mean life?

In 1988, Pan-Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and crew members; 13 years later, al-Megrahi, who’d been on the FBI’s most wanted list for over 10 years, was convicted of the bombing by a Scottish High Court of Justiciary in the neutral venue of Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.


Less than 10 years after Megrahi started his life sentence, with a minimum of 20 years before he was eligible for parole, he was released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Was MacAskill right to do this, or is the storm of criticism currently being flung his way right?


Some quarters, namely the USA, in the shape of Joint Chiefs Of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Joe Lieberman (Indep-Conn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) have called the decision “obviously political” and have said that it was a decision to improve British-Libyan trade. Lieberman linked the release of Megrahi to British interests and oil exploration in Libya; however he stopped short of accusing the UK of deliberately brokering a deal for his release. Ben Cardin however, went one further and definitely insinuated that the UK had indeed brokered a deal with Libya, a current OPEC member, for oil in return for his release.


Another position articulated by the USA, this time in the form of current FBI director Robert Mueller, is that the release of Megrahi gives “comfort to terrorists.”


While justice in Scotland falls under the remit of the devolved Government in Holyrood, The Westminster Government articulated it’s own position on the matter. A spokesperson for Gordon Brown said that the release has not given “succour to terrorists” but he also stated that the matter was purely a matter for the Scottish Government. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said “we understand the upset. We understand the disagreement. But we have to do what is right in terms of our legal system, what we are duty bound to do.”


Opposition Parties on both sides of the border have condemned the decision, with Nick Clegg saying “Although the decision to release Megrahi was a Scottish one for which Gordon Brown was not personally responsible, the fallout puts the UK at the centre of an international storm;” and the Leader of Scottish Labour, Iain Gray said “Last Week, the Scottish Government made a wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences.” This furore has led to Buckingham Palace confirming that the Duke of York will not visit Libya on a trade trip next month.


The Libyans are, obviously, rather pleased about the decision; Megrahi landed in Tripoli to crowds cheering and waving Libyan flags and Scottish Saltires. This reaction comes on the back of relations between the UK and Libya warming up after Tony Blair visiting Libya and Gordon Brown talking to Gadaffi at the G8 in Italy.


So, now we know the positions of the various parties involved in the debate, it is time to pull it all together into an analysis.


Under Scottish Law, Megrahi qualified for compassionate release as he was diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than three months to live. However, the huge manhunt involved in trying to capture Megrahi and the time spent on the trail in search of justice for victims indicates that Megrahi should have been forced to spend his life in prison. His sentencing details, life imprisonment with a minimum of 20 years without parole have not been observed.


Many people, including the USA and the British Opposition Parties, will argue that under these conditions, Megrahi should have died in prison, as countless others before him have done. His crime was tantamount to a mass murder bigger than that of Dr. Harold Shipman who killed a minimum of 218 people. Shipman’s sentencing conditions stated that he never be released, a decision confirmed by the Home Secretary. In the eyes of the law, what makes Megrahi so different to Shipman? Both killed many, many people, and therefore, in the eyes of the law, Megrahi should have an equal, if not harsher sentence than Shipman.


However, on the 6th August 2009, the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was given compassionate release by Jack Straw because of a serious bout of pneumonia that doctors said was probably fatal. However, Bigg’s health has since improved, but there have been no questions about his release. Although Biggs has not killed anyone, his robbery and subsequent escape from Wandsworth Prison are two of the most notorious events in British Criminal History.


So what makes Biggs any different from Megrahi? Both have committed atrocities, albeit in different criminal spheres, both inspired large manhunts and used a lot of time in their capture and trial and, in Bigg’s case, re-capture; and both are suffering from life threatening illnesses. So what makes them different in the eyes of the law? Why should Biggs be released and Megrahi shouldn’t be?


There is no concrete answer here, it is down to individual viewpoints, but in my view, Biggs and Megrahi are no different, Both committed heinous crimes, and both caused the criminal justice system countless man hours and piles and piles of cash; and both have life threatening health problems. So therefore, both should be released to spend their last months or days with their families without the fuss and condemnation that the release of Megrahi has generated.

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