Thursday, 20 August 2009

A Measure of Our Humanity?

Who would want to be Kenny MacAskill? The Scottish Justice Secretary must have wished he had the wisdom of Solomon at his disposal in the decision he had to take this week: Should the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing be released from prison on compassionate grounds?

It's an issue which arouses strong feelings, and one on which I'm sure you will have an opinion. Whether it's a compelling belief that he should remain in jail for life or that the original conviction was unsound, views can be very polarised.

So what are the factors that Mr MacAskill would have to consider, whether officially or not? What has led to today's decision?

Well, there are a number of conspiracy theories which suggest that the initial focus on Iran as the suspected source of the bomb was conveniently dropped as relations thawed. Libya, it is said, was more convenient nation on which to place the blame.

While al-Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish court, and had had one appeal declined, there are many who feel that the evidence against him was mostly circumstantial and the case far from watertight.

The decision to release him, however, had to be divorced from these concerns. As things stand, he is a convicted man - and a Justice Minister cannot by himself overturn the decision of the courts. If these were the grounds for release, the appeals process should have been left to run its course.

There are those who suggest the decision is political, or that it is influenced by the amount of oil reserves in Libya, and the prospects for BP and Shell to develop them. They suggest that the recent meeting between Lord Mandelson and the son of Colonel Gaddafi. I may be being naive but I don't sense these factors did play a part. Not least because the SNP government in Edinburgh would be unlikely to respond well to pressure from Labour in Westminster.

So what does it come down to? Why should we release a man convicted of 270 murders? What makes it appropriate to show compassion to someone convicted of a compassionless crime?

I believe it's simply this: "Treat others as you would wish to be treated".

True Justice is about society setting rules and standards - and then meeting them itself. Yes, people should be tried and convicted when they transgress the boundaries of what is acceptable. Yes they should serve a sentence and repay a debt to society.

But when the boot is on the other foot and a terminally ill man is dying thousand of miles from home and family, how do we choose to respond. Do we vindictively insist he remains where he is? Or do we meet the higher standards we set ourselves, the standards which we feel set us apart from the offenders and respond with compassion to them and - importantly - their families?

On balance, I feel Kenny MacAskill has made the correct decision. Perhaps prisoner transfer would have been preferable, but various previous commitments appear to have ruled this out. Perhaps it could have been handled better, and his presentation and subsequent interviews been more eloquent. However it was handled, he has made a courageous decision on behalf of us all, and one which most of us would shrink from taking responsibility for.


1 comment:

Stephen Chapman... said...

A great blog posting Andrew.

My view, for what it's worth, after hearing the news in recent days...

Release on compassionate grounds has to be balanced with the crime committed. In my mind, mass murder of 270 innocent people demands that he dies in prison. I am not interested in the arguments of whether he was guilty or not. The Scottish legal system found him guilty and we must rely on that.

For Americans to want to boycott the UK and Scotland in particular, I think you need to look again at this case and the reasons why the man was released. You may not agree with it, and many of us don’t, but it was done for specific legal reasons and with a high level of compassion. You may not like it, but you must understand that the decision was a hugely magnanimous one.

Many in the UK disagree with general US strong-arm tactics around the world, but our responses are always considered and respectful and not angry, accusatory and bullying like the US politicians’ views have been in recent days.