Lockerbie: It’s all Political

The expected release later today of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has been criticised by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State – as you can see in this video clip.She gives two reasons: Megrahi was convicted at a trial and his release would be against the wishes of the victims of those killed in 1988. Neither argument is remotely convincing.

Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary in the Scottish government, is likely to announce that Megrahi, 57, will be released on compassionate grounds. The Libyan, who has served eight years of a life sentence for killing the 270 people who died when a Pan Am flight was brought down, has terminal prostate cancer.

Any humane and decent legal system would surely release a prisoner in such circumstances. Release has no bearing on the guilty verdict, which Megrahi is no longer challenging.

Clinton’s second argument is not one that I would expect to hear from a lawyer. While any criminal justice system must maintain public confidence, we do not send people to prison at the behest of victims or their relatives.

Crime offends society as a whole.  and it is society – acting through states, their governments and their courts – that decides how criminals should be punished.

The wider criticism of MacAskill’s decision is that it is some way “political”. It is suggested that Britain’s trade relations with Libya would be improved if Megrahi was released. I am sure this is true.

During the Cold War, we were more used to the idea of releasing foreign spies in return for some political advantage – such as the return of our own agents. In Israel, there are sometimes difficult moral choices to be made about releasing convicted terrorists in exchange for the remains of murdered soldiers.

But criticism of the Megrahi’s expected release as “political” shows what short memories people have. His entire trial was political.

I am not suggesting that the Scottish judges who tried and convicted him did not decide the case according to law  - although I do remember thinking how convenient it was that there was just enough evidence to convict Megrahi but not his co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah.

I was also surprised that the trial judges recommended a minimum sentence of no more than 20 years, later increased to 27. Surely the murder of 270 people qualified for what is sometimes called a “whole-life tariff”? Or were the judges signalling some doubt about the verdict they had reached?

But this was an extraordinary case: the only time that the ordinary courts of one country have ever sat in the territory of another to try citizens of a third.

The trial required detailed and complicated diplomatic negotiations between the United Kingdom, Libya and the Netherlands, where a disused army base near Utrecht was given over to the Scottish authorities for the trial and Megrahi’s first, unsuccessful, appeal.

The idea that this was not “political” is absurd. It was part of a move to normalise British relations with Libya – and it succeeded.

I well remember visiting the base before it was handed over and reporting for the BBC on the negotiations leading to the trial itself. I also remember the absurd restrictions that the Scottish authorities imposed on broadcasters – meaning that the trial was covered much less effectively than it would otherwise have been.

We were not allowed to bring broadcasting vehicles anywhere near the courtroom, meaning long walks or cycle-rides to meet deadlines. Instead, a huge building had been constructed that was entirely unsuitable for television.  

We were also not allowed to know where the judges were staying and the base was locked down whenever they arrived or left. But their cover was blown when I checked into a discreet hotel on one visit – the others were full – and found copies of The Times at the reception desk reserved for four middle-aged men – three judges and a reserve – who turned up for breakfast wearing black jackets and grey striped trousers.

I never told a soul. But those tempted to watch any of my other reports from nearly a decade ago on RealPlayer – here and here for example – should bear in mind that, in the days of 28k dial-up modems, video was streamed at very low resolution. That’s why I looked older then than I feel now.

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