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Friday, 21 August 2009

21 August 2009

I think it might be useful to try to disentangle two distinct threads in the debate surrounding the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

Thread 1: was the right man convicted? Unfortunately, we shall probably now never know: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence agent, has abandoned his appeal and gone home to die.

Thread 2: was the decision to release him from jail on compassionate grounds justified because he is suffering from terminal cancer?

I have spent quite a bit of time over the years investigating the Lockerbie bombing and I am intimately familiar with the arguments over al-Megrahi's conviction in 2001. (If you're interested, you can read a background article I wrote at the time on the BBC website here.)

But to my mind, Thread 1 is not the most directly relevant in the wake of his release. It's Thread 2 - the use of the phrase "compassionate grounds" - that seems to me more worthy of our consideration.

Those who object to the decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, ask: "Why does this man deserve our compassion when he showed none to his victims?" To which Mr MacAskill replies: "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by ... no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated." (The full text of his statement is here.)

But should there be some kind of correlation between compassion and the seriousness of the offence committed? Is someone guilty of a heinous crime less worthy of compassion than someone who has committed a lesser offence?

Just two weeks ago, Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, was released from jail because he is gravely ill. But back in 2002, Myra Hindley, one of the most reviled serial killers in British criminal history, was refused freedom on compassionate grounds and died in custody at the age of 60, having spent 37 years in jail.

Over the past five years, 48 prisoners in the UK have been freed on compassionate grounds; that's fewer than those who have died in custody of natural causes. In Scotland, on the other hand, the picture is different: of 30 applications for compassionate release on medical grounds since 2000 (not all of them, of course, from people convicted of murder), only seven have been refused.

I suspect, although I have no way of knowing, that most of the people who object to the decision to release Mr al-Megrahi are convinced of his guilt. Similarly, I would guess that those who agree with the decision tend to be those who have doubts about his conviction.

But suppose there were no doubts. Suppose he had freely admitted his guilt. Would the arguments about compassion then be different? Mr MacAskill says: "Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion ... but that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."

I wonder if you agree.

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