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The release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in August allowed everyone to blame everyone else for freeing the Lockerbie bomber. But it also demonstrated what short memories people have these days.

In the United States, critics from President Barack Obama to the New York Daily News blamed the British Prime Minister for allowing Megrahi to return to Libya. In response, Gordon Brown pointed out that the decision to free Megrahi on compassionate grounds had been taken by the Scottish government under devolved powers. The Scottish National Party, which heads the minority government in Edinburgh, blamed the Labour government at Westminster. And the Scottish Parliament condemned the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, for mishandling the situation. 

In a case like this, conspiracy theories abound. So let's start with some facts. In 2001, Megrahi was convicted of killing the 270 people who died when a suitcase-bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. His co-accused, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was cleared by the three trial judges: uniquely, there was no jury. Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment, the mandatory sentence for even a single murder. But what was extraordinary was the minimum period, or "tariff", that the Scottish judges recommended Megrahi should serve before he could be considered for release. It was 20 years. Taking account of time spent on remand, he served half that period. My surprise at Megrahi's 20-year tariff was not mitigated when the period was subsequently increased to 27 years. After all, the standard tariff under English law for murdering a single person by using an explosive is now 30 years. A single terrorist murder attracts a "whole-life tariff", meaning that the prisoner would never normally be released. How could the terrorist murder of 270 people deserve anything less?

The straightforward answer is that the judges must have found mitigating circumstances: as an intelligence officer, Megrahi was presumably obeying orders. The conspiracy theorists would say that the judges implicitly acknowledged the well-rehearsed doubts over Megrahi's guilt. Either way, we can infer that the Scottish courts did not intend him to die in prison. 

To that extent, MacAskill's decision to free Megrahi on "compassionate" grounds — under powers granted by statute — can be seen as ensuring that the court's intentions were realised. That there was doubt over Megrahi's guilt is not open to question. His first appeal was dismissed in 2002. But in June 2007 his case was referred back to the appeal court by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.

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