The release of al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomberSo, a couple of days back, the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, agreed to release the Libyan national Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi who was convicted in 2001 for the mass murder of 270 innocent people. He was charged with blowing up an American airliner in the skies above the small southern Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all on board and 11 on the ground. Megrahi was the only person to be sentenced for the 1988 attack, which remains the worst terrorist attack in Britain's history.
Megrahi, who has only served eight years of his 27 year sentence, was released on compassionate grounds after doctors estimated that, due to the terminal prostate cancer he is suffering from, he has only three months to live.
That's the summary, then. The Libyans are happy, the Scots are split between accepting the higher moral ground and a feeling of dismay at justice not being fully served, and the Americans are nothing short of furious.
Personally, I think it's an unsatisfactory finale to an event that took so many lives, and left a small town scarred by more than 'just' the loss of local families, but the images of burning streets strewn with the bodies of the dead. It was a nightmare that cannot be trivialised. Yet, the only conviction would last just eight years.
However, Megrahi will soon face an eternal sentence. He has, in the words of MacAskill, been sent home to die. I would have preferred to have seen him die in jail, but there's humanity in the Scottish Government's decision. It's a bitter pill to swallow, nonetheless, and I accept the flaws in the logic. Also, I can't help but be influenced by my doubt over whether or not the conviction was safe. The prosecutors certainly had no "smoking gun" and that I think tempers my stance on the this. Moreover, Megrahi's release maybe isn't all that consequential in the realm of justice -- his cancer will ensure that his 27 years can never be served.
Politically, however, this is undeniably a mistake. Infuriating the Americans is one issue, although that won't be the major issue to the Scots. The most horrific development was the scenes from Tripoli, Libya where Megrahi was greeted with a hero's welcome at the airport. That really stuck in the throats of many, including my own. To add further insult, members of the crowd were waving Scotland's flag, the Saltire. To echo the statements of Russell Brown, MP for Dumfries, I have never been so disturbed to see my national flag being waived.
Some sources are claiming this charade was planned, and that Megrahi's return was intended to improve relations with Libya, which in turn would be helpful for oil deals. Perhaps it will, but for most of the West, the scenes from Tripoli will simply serve to alienate Libya further. How can a nation react this way to the return of a convicted terrorist? What does that say about the state and its people? It really is sickening.
As for Scotland's role in all of this? We've made a mess of this one; undoing the hard work carried out by the Scottish judicial system and creating a negative situation which was unnecessary and avoidable. If Megrahi really is guilty, no-one in the West would have questioned the decision to leave him to die in Scotland. My final thought, however, is: did we even get the right guy? It's a question that will probably never be answered.