21 August 2009

The Lockerbie Bomber, Compassion and Justice

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has received a hero's welcome on arriving in Libya. Understandably, there is an outraged response from many of the families of victims of the Lockerbie incident, of which al-Megrahi stands convicted of causing. Should he have been released? In my view, not in these circumstances.

Al-Megrahi was planning an appeal before the prospect of release on compassionate grounds arose, at which new evidence purported to show his innocence would have been presented. Had that evidence been compelling, his consequent release would have been just and fair, and any right-minded person would have even wished him compensated for wrongful imprisonment. Given his medical condition, the correct action would have been to pull out all the stops to hear his appeal without delay so that, if justified, he could have been released legitimately and returned home to die in the bosom of his family.

Why did he drop his appeal? Was it merely because he had been told to expect release on compassionate grounds? Was it because the evidence was flawed and unlikely to secure release? We will never know, unless the BBC makes a documentary about it.

Supposing that the new evidence fell down in court, that would leave us with a dying man still guilty of murdering 270 people without the slightest crumb of compassion and having never shown any remorse for the atrocity (were he innocent, I would expect him to show none, although he may be expected to express the same sadness and outrage that we all feel about Lockerbie). If his conviction were to stand, would compassion be sufficient grounds to release him?

This is not an easy debate. We all want justice for the wrongs done to us. We all need mercy for the wrongs we have done. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

Forgiveness is conditional on repentance and even then is an act of grace, not something earned by remorse: the victims are still dead. Had he shown true remorse, mercy could have been either extended to him on compassionate grounds or rightly withheld in the interests of justice. Mercy could have included everything short of release, leaving him to finish his sentence in better, even pleasant, surroundings. Mercy can and should be extravagant but it does not have to be stupid.

There are other things than the short-term fate of one man to weigh: the victim's families, international relationships, the greater struggle against the evils of terrorism. What has Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision shown to the world? That his ethic (for he does not speak for us all) is better than the terrorists'? I think not. I think it will be perceived by our enemies to show that we in the West are weak because of our muddle-headed thinking and will eventually be defeated.

This 'act of compassion' will be seen as a triumph not of our nobility but of their cause.