05 September 2009

The release of Abdel Baset el-Megrahi

There is widespread anger at the 20 August decision by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset el-Megrahi from prison, on compassionate grounds. Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of the bombing of Pan-American flight 103 above the Scottish town in 1988, causing the death of 270 people, 189 of them Americans.

Understandably there is anger; official anger, clearly expressed, on the part of the United States Government, and personal fury on the part of bereaved family members. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was the assistant attorney general in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991, wrote to MacAskill saying that the decision makes a mockery of the rule of law and gives comfort to terrorists around the world. “I am outraged at your decision”, he said – unusually strong language for official correspondence between agencies of friendly countries.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she was “deeply disappointed”, and President Barrack Obama denounced the decision as "a mistake".

While the anger is understandable, the insistence that Megrahi should die in a Scottish prison smacks more to me of vengeance than of justice, and given that in making his decision MacAskill was exercising a power available to him under Scottish law, it is preposterous to claim that the decision somehow undermines the rule of law, however much the complainant might dislike the law. To keep Megrahi in prison in response to political representations would be more undermining of the rule of law.

Perhaps more interesting is the entirely separate question of whether Megrahi’s conviction was a safe one in the first place. A Scottish judicial inquiry decided two years ago that there was enough doubt about the justice of the original trial to allow Megrahi a fresh appeal, and the trial and conviction certainly have their disturbing aspects. In this Radio National Rear Vision program broadcast on 2 September you can hear the views of the Scottish lawyer who proposed the framework for the original trial, Professor Robert Black QC FRSE FFCS of the Edinburgh Law School, and the UN's special observer to the proceedings, Dr. Hans Köchler, Chairman, Department of Philosophy, University of Innsbruck, as well as the latest from Megrahi's solicitor. You will also hear the views of Dr Jim Swire of UK Families-Flight 103 (UK Lockerbie relatives' group), who

“went into the court thinking these must be the guilty guys who blew up my poor daughter, and I came out of thinking ‘Well these clearly were not the guys, so who the heck was it who did do it and why am I being mistakenly led to believe that these two were responsible when clearly they weren't?’ ”.

The program may be accessed here as streaming audio, audio download or transcript.

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