August 20, 2009

The man who murdered 270 people by bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, has been given a compassionate release from prison so that he may spend his dying days with his family.

Ben Quinn for CSM:

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is said to be suffering from a terminal illness, was released today on compassionate grounds by Scotland's justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. At around 2:30 in the afternoon in Scotland, a commercial jet dispatched by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi touched down in Glasgow to whisk Mr. Megrahi home to a hero's welcome. A few minutes later, a convoy of vehicles departed Greenock Prison where a crowd of Scottish locals hurled jeers at the white van in the center of them.

Megrahi was the only man ever convicted in the 1988 attack, which killed 189 Americans, making it this country's single largest terrorist attack on civilians before Sept. 11.

"In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity," Mr. MacAskill said in a statement. "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs we seek to live by ... no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated. "For these reasons alone it is my decision that Mr. Al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die."

This move was made despite lobbying at the highest levels of the American government, WaPo's Karla Adam reports.

The White House issued a statement on Thursday saying it "deeply regrets the decision" to free Megrahi. "As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland," the statement said. "On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones."

Previously, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that it would be "absolutely wrong" to release him. Her views were echoed by seven senators, including Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who wrote to MacAskill earlier this week. MacAskill also said that he had spoken to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Clinton also released a statement Thursday calling the decision deeply disappointing. Holder released a statement of his own, saying, "There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans. Megrahi did not show and has not shown compassion for innocent human life, and as we communicated to the Scottish authorities and the UK government, it continues to be our position that he should have been required to serve the entire sentence handed down for his crimes."

Naturally, the families of the victims are outraged by the release, noting that no "compassion" was shown to those whom al-Megrahi murdered. MacAskill agreed that he hadn't but argued "Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown."

Andrew Bolger in Edinburgh and Daniel Dombey, writing for the FT,

Mr MacAskill, a Scottish National party politician, said he had rejected Libya’s transfer request because the US government and relatives either had an expectation, or were led to believe, that any person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing would serve the sentence in Scotland.

Mr MacAskill also said it was “highly regrettable” that the UK government had declined to make representations or provide information on the case, beyond saying that it saw no legal barrier to the transfer and that it gave no assurances to the US government when the prisoner transfer agreement was reached with Libya.

Alex Massie, a columnist for UK's Spectator, examines the domestic politics of the situation:

MacAskill's justification of his decision to release Megrahi so that he may die at home and in the company of his family, was about as good as could have been expected given both the circumstances and the man making the decision. The easy decision - certainly the one that Jack Straw would have made had it been his responsibility - would have been to insist that Megrahi die in prison. Deciding otherwise automatically opens MacAskill to accusations of grandstanding and political posturing.

Unsurprisingly, then, reaction to MacAskill's decision has split along partisan grounds: SNP supporters think he did well; those most hostile to the nationalists -such as Brother Nelson - are appalled.

My own preference would have been for Megrahi's appeal to continue, no matter how embarrassing that might have proved. Contra Fraser, there is some reason to suppose that Megrahi's conviction is unsafe. Not all the questions raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission have been answered.

That leaves us in an unsatisfactory position. Megrahi and, more widely, Libya may well be guilty. Whether the evidence is sufficient to support a Guilty rather than a Not Proven verdict in court is a different matter. To further complicate matters, few people believe that Megrahi, even if he did put the bomb on the plane, was the man behind the plot to destroy Pan-Am 103. Consequently and in one sense, Megrahi is a symbolic prisoner. That this is so, I think, undermines the case for insisting that he die in Greenock Prison.

Perhaps. Then again, he is the only person to actually be convicted in the mass murder of these 270 people. Surely, his part in that merits spending more than eight years in prison.

The decision, of course, is rightly with the UK.  They, not the United States, have the jurisdiction here and, while our government has every right to express its wishes, they have the right to carry out the policy they think best.  Certainly, al-Megrahi would have been allowed to rot in prison were he in American custody; indeed, he may well have been executed for his crimes.  Despite our common law origins, there is quite a bit of divergence in the criminal justice cultures of the two countries and, indeed, within the Western democracies generally.   

This is not the finest day in the history of US-UK relations. But the strain will smooth over quickly enough given the number of pressing issues confronting us in the world.

ADDENDUM:  Quinn has a follow-on piece which makes my point about the justice systems of the two countries in some detail.  An excerpt:

 

In many cases, where the American attitude toward a convict is "let him rot" the British one is to ask if the prisoner hasn't suffered enough.

"There is a British thing about fair play and not kicking someone when they are down," says Dr. Susan Easton, an expert on reforming criminals and managing prisons at London's Brunel Law School and author of the forthcoming book "Prisoners' rights: principles and practice." She says the different American and British attitudes are reflected in the prisons themselves. In the United Kingdom, prisons are more humane and comfortable than their American equivalents. "Dying in an English prison would be very different from dying in an American supermax," she says.

[...]

 But Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a group that has worked on British prison reform since 1866, maintains that a strong body of public opinion in the UK has always supported compassionate release. She points out that Megrahi, isn't that much of an outlier. Ronnie Biggs, serving a 30-year sentence for the so-called "Great Train Robbery" of 1963, was released earlier this month on compassionate grounds. Mr. Biggs had spent 30 years on the run and only returned to Britain to stand trial in 2001.

"There is a general recognition that when people are coming to the end of their life, they should be able to be with their families," she says. "It's a case of 'for goodness sake, we have exacted our pound of flesh' and an element of forgiveness. The question is, what good does it do to keep people in prison in these circumstances? Does it make you feel better about the loss of your son or daughter? Does their [the prisoner's] pain assuage your pain?"

It's a fair question. The natural American retort would be: Punishment. And to signal that some crimes are so heinous that mercy will not be forthcoming for those who commit them.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council

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