Growing up in Malta in the eighties the Lockerbie bombing was something it was impossible not to hear about on a regular basis. This is because of an alleged “Malta link“. But as is typical with misty childhood recollections, I never really found out where Lockerbie actually was (I used to think it was an airline at first) until I moved to Scotland last year. My personal childhood and Scotland “links” thus made me take a sort of personal interest in the events leading up to, and following, al-Megrahi’s release and I confess my gut reaction was not in his favour.
The reasons for this are the obvious ones: the man was part of a plane hijacking that resulted in just under 300 innocent deaths. Like many people I don’t believe terrorism should be rewarded and having a criminal and justice system that ferrets such people out and locks them up is a good thing. Therefore, after decades of work and effort, releasing the only man ever convicted of this atrocious act does seem like a mockery of all things we believe to be good.
The Scottish authorities responsible for his release must surely have anticipated the strong resistance and political fallout to such a decision. So why even consider it in the first place? Well, as the Scottish Justice Secretary explains, the principle of release on compassionate grounds is part of the Scottish legal system. What this means in simple terms is that any convicted criminal with less than 3 months to live may be released before his or her full prison term expires.
The deciding factor of such a release is compassion. Unlike other ways of reducing a prison sentence – good behaviour, remorse, parole – this is dependent on the captor not the captured. In other words, while good behaviour and parole say something about the guilty party, compassionate release says something about the people dispensing justice.
That the people of Scotland (as represented by their legal system of course) can even feel compassion for somebody like al-Megrahi, despite his terrible actions and their consequences, is to my mind a wonderful thing. It is to Scotland’s credit that such a person can be released and in no way a validation of his, or his collaborators’, actions.
The compassionate release of al-Megrahi does not make a mockery of the justice system and anti-terrorist efforts. On the contrary, it sets a judicial benchmark to which other nations should aspire.