Understandably, the one year anniversary of the return of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to Libya has brought waves of reflection on the decision to release him from a Scottish prison. The timing seems particuarly unfortunate, given the aftermath of the BP oil spill that has given rise to speculation of a UK government/BP deal with the Libyan authorities (BP having become the lightning rod for all things bad). The release was sanctioned (by the Scottish government) on compassionate grounds due to his terminal illness of prostrate cancer- assesssed by an independent doctor. As some see it, the trouble is that the prognosis was some three months- and here we are a year later and he is able to ‘enjoy’ these extra months in the company of his family and friends. To some the ideal result would have been a refusal to release followed by incarcerated death; to others death within days of release would have been more palatable. The argument seems to run ‘he didn’t show any mercy to any of his victims- why should we show him anything different?’ Well, maybe that is the best question to ask.
I remember the night of the Lockerbie bombing as I was driving to Devon that evening and arrived just in time to watch the late evening news bulletin with pictures of blazing houses and dismembered fuselage. It was a horrific scene, the result of an evil act. Assuming the guilt of al-Megrahi (in itself debatable), a life sentence in a Scottish prison was the most appropriate outcome. In the years that have followed we have had the grief of relatives (particularly in the US where most victims lived) portrayed regularly on key anniversary moments. Their loss should never be underestimated.
When we look at the release decision we shouldn’t confuse medical grounds for compassionate freedom with a change in the tariff of the sentence; this is still a life sentence. It’s just that the end of this prisoner’s life will take place in his family’s presence. In doing so, the Scottish government has shown that compassion is a better value than vengeful indifference to suffering. And no-one can accurately predict the life-span of someone with terminal illness. But my view is that it is a good thing that he is alive. His final days are a testimony to better values than those he espoused as a Libyan agent. Which is something for which I’m grateful.