The Magazine

Fair Is Foul in Scotland

The feckless release of a Libyan terrorist.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Since there is so little of it, let's start with the good news about the release from prison and triumphant return to Libya of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the terrorist who was supposedly serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison for his role in blowing Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.

The good news is that many Scots, including members of parliament, were genuinely outraged by the decision of Scotland's cabinet secretary for justice, Kenny MacAskill, to grant "compassionate release" to Megrahi, who has cancer. The same is true of Brits in general. The local press in Edinburgh and London has been chock-full of denunciation of the move and speculation about who knew and said what and when, as well as what the real motive might have been. It looks like there's an excellent chance MacAskill's political career is over, and if Gordon Brown needed another nail in the coffin of his effort to remain Britain's prime minister past next June, this was one. Two cheers for righteous indignation.

The bad news, however, is the sheer amount of dysfunctionality the spectacle has put on display. It really does not bode well for those Americans, presumably including the Obama administration, who seek a stronger European partner for coping with the troubles of the wider world--let alone for aficionados of the "special relationship."

The basic outline of the story begins with Megrahi's October 2008 diagnosis with advanced prostate cancer. Under Scotland's limited self-government authority, the decision on whether to grant him early release from prison on compassionate grounds was MacAskill's. With Megrahi supposedly having three months left to live, Scottish authorities consulted the Brown government on the matter, which affirmed that the decision was Scotland's to make. MacAskill, pronouncing himself "bound by Scottish values to release him," sprung Megrahi on August 20. Police escorted him to a chartered jet to take him to Tripoli. Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, who owns a $16 million mansion in a London suburb, accompanied Megrahi to Tripoli, where a cheering crowd at the airport, many waving Scottish flags, greeted him as a returning hero. He was reunited on the airplane steps with his acquitted codefendant in the bombing.

There is indeed a question of basic values here. "Scottish values" may favor compassionate release for prisoners on their death-beds; Americans don't seem especially troubled about letting convicts die in jail. A January 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics study notes that 12,129 inmates died in state prisons from 2001 until 2004, more than 92 percent of natural causes (6 percent were suicides and 2 percent homicides). Official European opposition to the death penalty is well known. Less well known is the European Union opposition to life sentences without parole. U.S. jurisdictions do have some provisions for compassionate release, but--and this may be a key point--they tend not to apply to convicted international terrorists who have killed hundreds of innocent people (Megrahi's victims included 189 Americans).

Then there are the less savory allegations surrounding Megrahi's release. Springing Megrahi was a cause célèbre for the Arab League, which maintains he is innocent. It was also a longtime project of Qaddafi's wheeler-dealer son in London. Saif himself claimed that Megrahi's release was always an issue in negotiations over business deals. Lord Trefgarne, the head of the Libyan British Business Council, lamenting the slow pace of oil deals, charmingly noted, "Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they'll move a bit more swiftly." Colonel Qaddafi, having flamboyantly thanked the queen, Prince Andrew, "my friend Brown," and the Scottish authorities, promised, "This step .  .  . will be positively reflected in all fields of cooperation between the two countries."