23 August 2009

The Release

We are, of course, watching the dust settle, as the reaction to and consequences of the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who will go to his grave as The Lockerbie Bomber, continue to unfold.

Frankly, we are nowhere near the end of this saga. How can we be? Many of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims think that Kenny MacAskill has ordered the release of a mass murderer - no closure for them - while the others think that he ought never have been convicted of the atrocity in the first place - no closure for them either. Keeping him in prison would at least have suited some of the bereaved.

But to be blunt, if I myself had been one of the bereaved, Megrahi being in prison and alive wouldn't have been satisfactory either. I would have wanted Megrahi tried by that higher power Kenny MacAskill talked about ASAP. I would have made it happen myself, given half the chance.

Fortunately for Megrahi, neither I nor Kenny MacAskill lost anyone that night twenty years ago. But if you can imagine yourself in their shoes (and I can try, but will never come even close to knowing what that's like), you can understand the frustrations of those who wanted him to remain locked up. And you can understand the frustrations of those who do not have faith in the outcome of the initial trial: with only the guilty verdict for Megrahi - and the end of his appeal against his conviction - they will not be satisfied, as they will never get the chance to get to the bottom of what happened.

But as far as the law is concerned, he is responsible. He is the guilty party and he has withdrawn his appeal.

So why release him?

Had I been in Kenny MacAskill's shoes, this is what I would have argued. With the exception of the relatives of the victims, for whom the suffering and the pain of loss is so real, the rest of us can afford a look at the whys and wherefores. And the key point for me, is this: we, in our stable, democratic country, have the luxury of asserting our moral superiority over terrorism and terrorists. We are not the ones who would entertain the very idea of putting a bomb on a civilian airline, far less carry that idea out. We have the moral high ground, and rightly so. Now, we're talking about showing Megrahi compassion. And there are many who would suggest that he didn't show any when he put the bomb on Pan-Am 103. They'd be right. But does that mean that we shouldn't show him any?

No, it doesn't.

And the reason for this is simple: we have asserted our right to the moral high ground. He did not show compassion, so deciding not to show it to him in his dying days takes us to that same unfeeling level. That moral high ground which we so rightly claim suddenly finds itself on the wrong end of a very swift erosion process.

Outrage begets outrage. Atroctiy begets atrocity. Rage begets rage and revenge begets revenge. Just as in Megrahi's eyes, the passengers of that flight were not ordinary people going about their lives, but dehumanised targets, so we have dehumanised Megrahi. He is The Lockerbie Bomber. Nothing else matters.

But MacAskill had to - and it seems that he did actually have to - meet the man. And that is precisely what he met. A man. A man convicted of mass murder, but nevertheless, a man. And a man who appears to be suffering from terminal cancer. A weakened, frail man. Perhaps, in that moment, Kenny MacAskill understood what Jack Straw must have gone through when he had to assess the fitness of General Pinochet to stand trial. Could the elderly, sick man who Jack Straw mercifully sent home to die in his homeland be the same man who sent literally thousands - there were three thousand deaths in just the first month after Pinochet deposed Salvador Allende - to their death in his seventeen-year tyranny over Chile? He was, of course, but Straw showed the mercy in power that Pinochet himself never would. Of course, the General lived on for six more years before passing away. Unless the Libyans have been pulling a similar stunt, Megrahi will be lucky to see in 2010.

I'll refer back to Pinochet in a little while, but in the case of Megrahi, MacAskill seeing him in his cell must have caused some sort of cognitive dissonance. It would have had to: on paper, Megrahi was the man who blew up a plane. In the flesh, MacAskill would see a weakened, ill man in a cell. An Megrahi, in a flash, is suddenly re-humanised. What else could the Justice Secretary have done?

And besides, let's look at the purpose of a criminal justice system. Punishment? Well, he's had that, but now his own body is punishing him in ways which not even Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo could achieve. Deterrence? It is doubtful that the thought of Megrahi in jail made any potential terrorist stop and think again about what they were planning to do. It's not impossible, but it's highly doubtful. Public safety? Megrahi had already carried out the act and Colonel Gaddafi is now, apparently, an ally in the War on Terror. The probability of recidivism in this case, was low. Lower than in the case of the prisoners released from the Maze as part of the Good Friday Agreement, anyway.

So when the application for compassionate release came, of course it had to be taken seriously.

And MacAskill made his decision.

The Libyan triumphalism was disgraceful - an affront to Scotland's dignity for one thing - though the Scottish Government can hardly be blamed for that.

The US reaction was hysterical - though one can forgive them the conflation of the two governments: why should they be expected to understand Scottish constitutional issues? - on the one hand, they stand with the victims, but there are other matters to think about.

As others have already asked, did they think about the victims of IRA bombings when their citizens (along with Libya, incidentally) supported their cause either with words or money? Or when they gave Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams a visa while the IRA's campaign was ongoing? Apparently terrorism is only evil when it's your people getting blown up.

Then there's the Boycott Scotland campaign (I don't recall a Boycott America campaign when Adams was given a visa), who say:

Mr. MacAskill, the so-called "Justice" Secretary of Scotland, you should be ashamed of yourself. You know nothing of justice, nor will we ever forgive your heinous action, and it is our sincere hope that the people of Scotland will strongly voice their opposition to what you have done. You have shown to the international community that your government and the United Kingdom as a whole will stop at nothing to pursue the neverending and relentless acquisition of oil revenues.

One wonders what they thought of the Iraq War, when the WMD we were told about failed to materialise, when the terrorists who were being linked into Iraq actually found their way into the country and began a bombing campaign which they never managed before, and when the regime change saw the rise to prominence of such unsavoury figures as Moqtada al-Sadr, but when, in the midst of all that chaos, US business interests had a field day. Blood has been shed a war that got rid of no WMD, enabled rather than prevented terror, risked allowing a regime that actually would have been the one thing worse than Saddam but did succeed in giving US business some new investment opportunities. Funny, that.

Now, the anger at his release is one thing - it's understandable, of course - and the USA's past lax approach to terror (until it started happening to them) is quite another, while the hypocrisy of decrying the potential influence of commercial interests in international geopolitics is quite another, but here's the bit I don't get. Libya did support terror, did have a WMD programme, was a risk to regional stability and has, at the risk of understatement, a not-very-nice leader.

So why, when Libya has (as far as we know) got rid of its nuclear programme, stopped using terrorism as a policy instrument, and has gone to the forefront of the African Union - a project to calm things down on the continent - is all this outrage directed at Tripoli now? Why wasn't it on George Bush's "Axis of Evil" list? Why did Coalition forces go into Iraq instead of Libya, when Colonel Gaddafi's regime met all the reasons for attacking Iraq better than Iraq itself did?

Again, the frustration of the victims is real, we can't discount that and shouldn't even try. Of course they want Megrahi locked up (I daresay a good number of them would have wanted him tried over their, in one of the states which still uses the death penalty and if I were in their shoes, I can't say for sure that I would disagree). But the outrage of others seems somewhat hollow when you look at the wider picture.

Then there's the UK Government - stuck between a rock and a hard place. It has to say nothing - to support Kenny MacAskill would be to exacerbate the row with the US (and pull the rug from Iain Gray's feet), while to condemn it would set back the progress in normalising UK-Libya relations (though the Libyans themselves are doing well at that by parading Megrahi like a trophy: it's their turn to dehumanise him, it seems) and raise questions about previous contacts with Libyan officials and put an unfortunate light on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement that Tony Blair signed with Gaddafi. Nor could it say anything beforehand for fear of appearing to attempt to influence a decision that wasn't theirs to take (and, in so doing, giving another publicity gift to the Scottish Government, which the UK Government would be anxious to avoid) But the repercussions are affecting it: just as the Scottish press seems to have thrown the spotlight on Kenny MacAskill, so the London-based press is gunning for Gordon Brown.

And in many ways, this could do more damage to him than to MacAskill or the SNP, which has managed consistently over the last two years to find rabbits in even the deepest of hats, while Gordon Brown's two years in office have been marked by crisis after fiasco after row. This will prove to be another nail in the UK Government's coffin, another milestone on the road to electoral defeat. And this could yet be the most serious row to challenge the Scottish Government, potentially providing the first Ministerial scalp since 2007 (in fact, since the enforced resignation of Malcolm Chisholm in December 2006 from the Labour-led Executive over Trident), but the Government has so far survived the Trams row, Trumpton, rows over student funding, the Budget fiasco, the LIT row and the accusation of misleading Parliament over escaped prisoners. This may be the biggest challenge yet, but the SNP's form in recovering from what pundits perceive as critical damage to the Government has hitherto been remarkable. Don't write the Government off.

Nevertheless, it's no surprise that David Cameron has chosen to lead the attack on Lockerbie - breaking his pledge not to intervene in devloved matters as long as MSPs don't quibble with him over reserved policy (that promise didn't even survive the election - see why I'm not enthralled by either possible UK Government?) - it's more a chance to attack Labour than the SNP. If it were the latter, Annabel Goldie would be there. And it's also interesting that, in the world of Tory policy, this mass murderer should spend his last three months in jail, but General Pinochet shouldn't even have to stand trial for a seventeen-year reign of terror. But then, he was a "friend of Britain" (well, friend of Thatcher). He may have been a mass-murdering despot, but he was our mass-murdering despot.

Speaking of Pinochet, the quibble I have with Kenny MacAskill's handling of the situation was his focusing his energies in communicating with Whitehall on the Foreign Office, who - perhaps wisely after the row when the PTA was signed two years ago - remained silent, when UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw would have made a wiser contact: in having had to make the call on Pinochet in 2000, he is perhaps one of the few people on the whole planet who would get the enormity of the decision facing his Scottish Government counterpart. As such, he would have been an invaluable source of experience and insight on the matter and may have been able to discuss what did (and didn't) happen, what were the right calls and what mistakes were made (I'd hazard that believing that Pinochet really was at death's door was one of them and we have to hope that those in the Scottish justice system who have dealt with the Megrahi case have not been hoodwinked in a similar way): Kenny MacAskill ought to have made better use of that, if possible.

But back to the political reaction: before Jack McConnell reminded us that but for a few votes in Cunninghame North, he'd have been dealing with this and Cathy Jamieson would have been holding that press conference (and opted to blame his successor for the one thing over which the Scottish Government had no control), Iain Gray came forward, attacking Alex Salmond for not intervening (he would, I suspect have attacked him for interfering had the FM done so), and prefacing his remarks as follows:

If I was First Minister, Megrahi would not be going back to Libya.

Shoddy grammar aside, not even David Cameron opted to preface his remarks by saying what he'd do in Government, and so, I fear, we come to the heart of the matter for Scottish Labour and Iain Gray. If he were in charge - that's the bit that counts here. Never mind the geopolitics. Never mind the 270 deaths. Never mind the dying man convicted of them. In the world of Scottish Labour, it's all about who's Numero Uno, and Iain bloody Gray. For shame!

Nevertheless, he is not First Minister, but Leader of the Opposition, and will have the opportunity to hold the Justice Secretary to account in a special session of Parliament tomorrow.

Kenny MacAskill is going to get a grilling from the three main Opposition parties: we can be certain of that.

There may be a proposal to hold an inquiry into the entire history of the Lockerbie bombing, from the events leading up to it, Megrahi's flight home. This would probably get the support of the Chamber.

There may be an attempt at a no-confidence vote in Kenny MacAskill. With the parties attacking him holding 78 votes to the SNP's 47, we may find that Scotland has (or requires) a new Justice Secretary in 24 hours time. But even if that doesn't happen tomorrow, it will happen eventually: it may be Government business scheduled in the Chamber for the first two weeks of Parliament's full return to work, but sooner or later, there will be a window for an Opposition motion against him. And let's not beat around the bush: it is unlikely that he will survive it. All the main opposition parties are criticising him, and in any case, a scalp is a scalp.

There may even be an attempt to ditch the whole Government, especially if Iain Gray wants to be FM as badly as he appears to. At this point, things may backfire for the Opposition: ths will be the ultimate over-politicisation of the Lockerbie decision - the attempt to use a terroirst outrage, 270 deaths and a decision made in the spirit of mercy to, as Annabel Goldie said of the failed Budget earlier this year, "stage some bloodless debating chamber coup to ensconce him as First Minister". And with Goldie going on to say at that time "that Scotland is already badly served by one Labour Government and that we certainly do not need two" then whatever the UK Tory position on Lockerbie, Labour could not count on Socttish Tory support to oust the SNP Government.

So the immediate political future is uncertain. What we do know is as follows:

Kenny MacAskill will face a tough time tomorrow and will be fortunate if opposition MSPs haven't contrived to eject him from ministerial office within four weeks.

Megrahi is home.

The Libyans are gloating.

The US Administration is visibly outraged.

But most importantly, there are the relatives of 270 casualties, with emotional wounds ripped well and truly open and no prospect of closure anytime soon, if ever.

And that is something everyone involved at least needs to acknowledge when they discuss Lockerbie.


commentor said...

"But most importantly, there are the relatives of 270 casualties, with emotional wounds ripped well and truly open and no prospect of closure anytime soon, if ever."

Oh well, who cares eh? After all, not releasing a mass murderer makes you morally equivalent to a mass murderer.

Will said...

And using the deaths of 270 people to make a point makes you what, exactly?

I re-iterate the full point I made: turning a blind eye to the plight of a dying man - whoever he is - cheapens us all. Letting him die alone, and in agony, isn't justice but revenge. And it's a pretty crappy revenge at that.

Holyrood Patter said...

to personify it, look at the interviews given by mrs bernstein and dr swire?
which of those two seems to have the better quality of life, despite equally horrific losses?

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

A very good post Will.

I don't know if you're aware of Jonathan Mitchell QC's blog - but he posted on this today at http://www.jonathanmitchell.info/2009/08/24/megrahis-release-kenny-macaskill-was-right/ giving part of the legal justification for the decision.

I disagree that Mr MacAskill was obliged to visit Megrahi in prison. No lawyer I've spoken to believes there was an obligation to do so. Most, agree with me, that that decision was inexcusable when dealing with a quasi-judicial matter, not just in relation to this case but the implications for future cases (if he argues - as he did on newsnight Scotland - that a best evidence rule applies, then the best evidence rule is applicable to all instances where he is in a quasi-judicial role as there is nothing inherent in the PT procedure that means that administratively it should be treated differently (and there is a risk that this would require him to meet other prisoners with applications before him)).


Caron said...

Powerful stuff, Will and very persuasively put.

I hope you'll forgive me for lowering the tone, but the thought of Kenny going to Jack Straw for advice and Jack Straw giving it in a helpful manner made me giggle. It's what should happen in a grown up, civilised democracy, but I'm not sure relations between Labour and the SNP are that good, on either side

Brigada Flores Magon said...

One of the best things I've read on the matter. Sober, thoughtful, unpartisan.

Will said...

Thanks to all those who have commented so far. For the benefit of other readers, here's a direct link to Jonathan Mitchell's post

I'm reluctant to intrude on the grief processes at work, HP, but Mrs. Bernstein is symbolic of the mindset that has caused so much violence, injury and suffering in every outrage since Lockerbie: the idea we've been hurt so we have to cause hurt, and there can be no peace until we've had our way. I can't imagine what she must have gone through having lost her husband in such a manner, and she and Dr. Swire have their own individual grief to deal with but meeting hate with hate will only cause more people to go through what they do.

Scott, I'll defer to you on the legality surrounding Kenny MacAskill's visit to Megrahi regarding the PT, but I would argue that with the possibility of compassionate release also in play, regardless of the legality, practicality demanded that he see for himself the man who he was considering for release. If you're making a judgement on the health or otherwise of someone, particularly in the process of making such a significant decision, nothing will ever beat first-hand understanding.

Caron, you're probably right. Nevertheless, Straw is one of the few people who gets what Kenny MacAskill had to do and at least an attempt should have been made to access his experience. Even if, as you suggest, it'd probably be futile. Though, incidentally, the point you make is exactly why we can knock the idea of Kenny acting as a patsy for Foreign Office interests as absurd. While hints appear to have been made by Foreign Office ministers, had any direct pressure been applied, then boy, would we know about it (as everyone knows, neither side is slow to accuse the other of funny business). Still, it's nice to think that on something like this, our politicians would show a bit of dignity. Sadly, I may have been disappointed on that score once again...

topher said...

Your post is well thought out and intelligent. But it does not consider the views of those who think Megrahi was framed.

For instance the BBC correspondent last night said most people in Libya think this, and so jubilation is a natural reaction, not a gloating over "getting away with it".

Dr. Jim Swire thinks the conviction is unsafe, and he is the most intelligent and informed person I have heard on the subject.

The UN observer at the trial also thinks the conviction is unsafe, and wants the whole thing opened up again.

I have come to the conclusion that Megrahi was framed by intelligence services who wanted the real perpetrators to escape and needed a scapegoat.

The Maltese guy who identified Megrahi received millions for his evidence from US intelligence sources and now lives in Australia.

I don't know McAskill's views on this but as Justice minister he has to support the decision of a Scottish court, even if it was misled by planted evidence.

The UK government has granted immunity certificates to the "public servants" (intelligence I think) involved, so (a) they think there is something to hide and (b) they don't want it to come out.

There needs to be more questioning of Megrahi's status as mass murderer in this debate. I can see why the US relatives cannot bring themselves to believe that they were misled but if Jim Swire can do it we should.

Ted Harvey said...

I'm proud of how the Scottish Government and legal system has dealt with this case. IMO Scotland's standing throughout the world will be greatly enhanced by this affair - especially on the courage of a small nation refusing to be bullied by the USA super power, or influenced by base mercantile considerations.

Some core points:

The USA authorities and in particular the head of the FBI doth protest too much... they do of course need to keep the relatives of the bereaved distracted away from the original and increasingly incredible, case against Megrahi.

Secondly, like any other decent human being, I have to give all due respect and more to the relatives of the deceased victims. I, however, cannot avoid wondering when I hear the 'let him rot in jail' mindset of a few of the USA relatives, and their point blank refusal to consider anything but what they concluded about the original case... and I hesitate here, but, who exactly would that be helping? Because I don't see what justice for the deceased it would serve.

Thirdly, no matter what Kenny MacAskill did, he would be condemned by a body of people. So far as I can judge he has been exemplary in seeking to follow all due and correct diligence in administration of this affair. He did not, however, fully, relevantly and factually respond to several important questions raised in the debate. Parliamentary debate was shown to be a flawed mechanism in these circumstances. The lesson is that MSPs must instigate reforms on how such cases are handled in future.

Fourthly, the role of the Labour MSPs in the Holyrood debate with the eyes of the world upon it, showed, frankly, their lack of calibre and capacity right across the board. Their inadequacies and failure to fully hold the Minster to account, contributed to the failure of the debate in some respects. Their poor-rate leader's words were telling when he pandered to low politics with his references to the 'silent majority'. A phrase invented by one of those fundamentalist USA right wingers... was it Reagan or Nixon or the loathsome Agnew? I cannot recall, but rehabilitation of the phrase by a Labour political leader seems fitting at the fag end of New Labour - one of the most illiberal Governments the UK has experienced.

As for the conduct of the Leader of the Lib Dems in the Holyrood, debate; it was little short of disgraceful.

Lastly, the entire matter of how Libya dealt with the Magrahi return was and is a matter wholly for the Westminster based UK Government.

A postscript: One is also left with an indelible feeling that if we still had a Scottish Executive locally managed on behalf of Westminster Labour by 'Scottish Labour, it would have been the case that USA and mercantile interests will have been heeded to the full. This points up the increasingly anachronistic status of 'Scottish' Labour as, uniquely, a partly franchised adjunct to a Westminster based party.

Cruachan said...

An excellent post Will.

My own thoughts are at http://loosechange-cruachan.blogspot.com/

Since the Holyrood debate on Monday it seems to me that some kind of enquiry would be the best outcome of the last few weeks.

Not quite sure whose enquiry (Scottish? US? UK? UN?) or what powers/remit it might have, but if constituted correctly could go some way to help the victims' families move on. The fear is that there are so many vested interests in avoiding such an enquiry it may never take place.

boxthejack said...

Topher, absolutely. But I think MacAskill may be onto something.

If he can encourage the Libyan-led General Assembly to follow Hans Koechler's advice and carry out a full investigation, the story that is likely to emerge is of how London abused the Scottish legal system for its own geopolitical ends.

Not only will that out the truth, but it has to boost the independence case.

Watch this space I guess?

James Higham said...

Frankly, we are nowhere near the end of this saga. How can we be? Many of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims think that Kenny MacAskill has ordered the release of a mass murderer - no closure for them - while the others think that he ought never have been convicted of the atrocity in the first place - no closure for them either. Keeping him in prison would at least have suited some of the bereaved.

Your argument is cogent and the issue of closure is a very real one. Would that whoever is guilty - him, someone else, should be found.

Will said...

Thanks to all those who have left comments since I last replied, especially Topher for reflecting so carefully the many people who view the initial conviction as unsound.

Now that it's been raised, I should point out that this viewpoint was not far from my mind as I drafted the post, but decided in the end not to give it any more than a passing reference, not out of disrespect or disagreement towards the idea but as it would, I felt, confuse the post.

The decision I took was to base my argument and my post on the court's decision that Megrahi is The Lockerbie Bomber, and that, having ended his appeal, he will remain so. I know that there are many who question that, but I felt that to present an effective argument on the matter, I needed a solid marker and that was the best I could find.

The post was not intended as a comment on the trial or the fairness of its verdict: I don't know anywhere near enough on the details to be able to provide that, and I'll defer to those who do on the matter.