Justice, clemency and U.K. politics


The secretary for justice in the devolved government in Scotland decided Aug. 20 to release Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only individual who had been convicted of involvement in the so-called Lockerbie tragedy. This terrorist incident occurred more than 20 years ago when a Pan American airliner was brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, by a bomb in the hold. Fatalities totaled 270, mostly Americans, but the victims hailed from 21 countries in all.

Al-Megrahi had been convicted under Scottish law in a court, specially convened in the Netherlands, of responsibility for the tragedy. The reason given for his release was that he was suffering from terminal cancer and was likely to die within three months. The release was accordingly made on compassionate grounds.

Al-Megrahi, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment (meaning a minimum of 27 years under Scottish law), had only served some eight years of his sentence. He has never apparently shown any remorse for the victims of the tragedy. On his release he was flown back to Libya on the personal aircraft of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator. Accompanied by one of the colonel’s sons, he was given a hero’s welcome on arrival in Tripoli.

The decision to release al-Megrahi has caused anger especially among the families of victims in the United States. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the decision and there have even been threats that Americans will boycott Scotch whiskey and avoid visiting Scotland as tourists.

The decision was also criticized in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament was recalled for a special session Aug. 24 and Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, was closely questioned on his decision.

In defending it, he continued to emphasize that the decision was made solely on humanitarian grounds. He did not say why he had visited al-Megrahi in prison. Nor did he explain why al-Megrahi had withdrawn his second appeal against his conviction. This is puzzling and regrettable as there seems to be newly discovered evidence that will not now be made public. Some suspect that the evidence could be embarrassing. For whom? The Libyan government perhaps?

The release has also been seriously embarrassing for the British government, which continues to have responsibility for the foreign relations of the United Kingdom as a whole.

The British government has tried to disassociate itself from the decision declaring that it was solely a matter for the devolved government in Edinburgh. But a letter from a foreign office minister to the Scottish justice secretary, which has been made public, suggested that the way was open for the culprit’s release.

When Libya decided that it was in its interests to thaw its frozen relations with Britain and other countries, former Prime Minister Tony Blair signed an arrangement with Libya for prisoners to serve their sentences in their home countries. This would have paved the way for al-Megrahi, the only Libyan prisoner in Britain, to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya.

Lord Mandelson, who is in all but name now deputy to the prime minister, has recently been hobnobbing with Gadhafi’s son and possible successor, and it is thought that the future of the prisoner may have been discussed in the margins of trade talks. He denies any involvement with Libya over this case, but it is common knowledge that Shell, BP and other Western oil companies are seeking to expand their investments in Libya and had been seriously concerned that if al-Megrahi was not released soon their interests would suffer.

The Libyan dictator, who may at best be described as eccentric but sometimes seems deranged in his pursuit of power, is well known for his bullying tactics with foreign governments, firms and individuals. Recently the Swiss government felt forced to apologize for having arrested one of the colonel’s sons on the grounds that he had been assaulting servants. The Libyan government is said to have withdrawn funds from Swiss banks and to have embargoed exports to Switzerland of Libyan oil and gas.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s only intervention seems to have been a last minute message to the colonel urging that the culprit’s return should be a low-key event. He must have realized that this last-minute message would be ignored. It seems clear that Gadhafi, who is celebrating shortly the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power, was determined to secure the release of al-Megrahi — reputed to be one of his intelligence officers — to demonstrate his power and independence.

We shall not know the truth about this matter until all the relevant documents are published. The authorities will no doubt do their best to delay publication if the papers contain, as many suspect, potentially embarrassing material.

One thing is certain: The interests of justice have not been well served. The victims of this appalling crime have been left with the suspicion that their interests in ensuring that the criminals pay for their evil deeds may have been sacrificed to advance business interests.

Many in Britain sympathize with the distress of the victims and feel ashamed at how al-Megrahi’s release has been handled, both in Edinburgh and London. In particular they note that Brown, in his inimitable way of never being available when trouble arises, has studiously avoided commenting publicly on the release on the grounds that he is on holiday.

Brown has been given the nickname by some unkind observers of “Macavity,” the name of the mystery cat in T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (on which the musical Cats was based), who is never there to take the blame: “Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity, There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity, He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare; At whatever time the deed took place — MACAVITY WASN’T THERE.’

An unfair comparison, no doubt!

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.