Compassionate Leave?

 
 

The release of the Lockerbie bomber is a cold gesture to the families of those he killed, writes Aidan Kirrane.

WATCHING TELEVISION ON the 20th August, you would have been forgiven for mistaking the scenes at Libya’s main airport as the homecoming of an athlete fresh from winning gold at the Olympic Games. Instead the jubilant crowds were there for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, who was convicted of killing 270 people in a bomb attack on a Pan-American plane in 1988 but released on compassionate grounds following a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish government’s decision to grant his release sparked controversy on the international stage, with the families of victims speaking of the pain caused by the reopening of old wounds.

The United States, from where the majority of victims came, also directed its particularly venomous ire at Scotland. Washington pointed fingers at Gordon Brown’s role in the events leading to the release, with whispers circulating on the other side of the Atlantic of Brown being complicit, seeking to improve British trade links with Libya,
Libya met with heavy criticism when the scenes of Meghari’s homecoming were broadcast around the globe. While Libya pointed out it could have held a grander celebration and that there was no official government representation at the airport, Meghari was granted an audience with Colonel Gaddafi the following day.

20_al-megrahiPM_r_kAny sensitive issue will be made an even thornier one once cancer is involved. However, when Meghari’s single life is measured against the 270 he took in such a brutal and callous manner, the indignation of the victims’ families on his release is understandable.

However, when the maths and morals of the situation are weighed up against each other, it becomes clear that a well thought out compromise could have provided a far more satisfactory outcome. If Meghari had been granted extra visitation rights, or was transferred to a different facility, he would have been allowed to spend more time with his relatives, while still sparing the feelings of the victim’s families by keeping him in a higher degree of custody.

The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny McAskill, with whom the decision ultimately rested, ruled out any such arrangement in the debates preceding the release. He argued that placing Meghari in a suitable safe-house or hospital would require the constant presence of 48 police officers, and described the strong possibility of a media circus engulfing the location “grotesque”. However, the size of security required seems exaggerated, and any media coverage that would have materialised could not have been worse than what transpired in the aftermath of Meghari’s ultimate release.

“Washington pointed fingers at Gordon Brown’s role in the events leading to the release, with whispers circulating on the other side of the Atlantic of Brown being complicit”

OB-EH217_Locker_G_20090820193143
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed all 259 people on board - 243 passengers and 16 staff - as well as 11 civilians in Lockerbie, Scotland

The failure to find a suitable middle ground is what has led to the situation becoming so protracted and even more distressing. If the circumstances had been handled in a more sensible and subtle manner, it could have received much less publicity, and the parties involved could have avoided much unneeded embarrassment and anguish.
The main complicating factor in the case was the moral grey area into which it fell, and the questions this raised. Should any human being be denied the right to spend time with their loved ones in the twilight of their lives? If such a right exists, should committing an act as terrible as mass murder lead to this right being rescinded?

The only positive to come from the case was the exposure of a worrying aspect of law – the freedom of governments to effectively mute the rule of a court on welfare grounds – that needs redress in clear and unequivocal terms. The most obvious solution would be legislation dealing with the issue of compassionate release, while taking into account the effects of such a release on those who suffered most from the crime committed. Such a move would not be a knee-jerk reaction specific to Meghari’s case. The Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, was also granted compassionate leave on health grounds, so the scenario is not unique – and it is more than likely a similar situation will arise in the future.

Meghari maintains his innocence even now and still aims to prove it before his death. Indeed, there were rumblings that his release was part-compensation for the miscarriage of justice that led to his imprisonment in the first place. However, it would seem more likely that if he truly was an innocent man, this could have been proven in the twenty-one years since his incarceration.

A compromise catering for the needs of all parties would have been the ideal solution. An absolute release was more than a man who killed 270 people deserved, and caused untold damage to the reputation of several governments. Human decency would determine that a person is entitled to spend the end of their days with those closest to them, but it is certainly unjust that Meghari will share a final word with his loved ones in complete freedom – a last goodbye he denied to the families of the passengers on the fateful Pan Am Flight 103.

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