The fate of Al-Megrahi is much in the news these days. It is fast becoming a matter of international (megaphone type) diplomacy. Currently languishing in jail in Greenock, the terminally ill Al-Megrahi is awaiting the decision of the Scottish Government as to whether they allow him to return to Libya to meet his death with his family. Such a decision would be made on compassionate grounds – the prisoner is fast approaching death due to prostate cancer. This prospect has annoyed a lot of people who feel that Al-Megrahi's culpability for the hundreds of deaths resulting from the Lockerbie plane crash means that he is beyond the pale as it were, and should die in jail. The USA in particular seems to most upset by the prospect of his release. The views of the still grieving relatives of those who died in the crash are a bit mixed, though most, again especially the Americans, want him to remain in jail. Others, less sure about Al-Megrahi's guilt want him to pursue his challenge against the conviction in the hope that the “truth”, or at least more of the truth will emerge. Leaving aside the question of whether Al-Megrahi really is guilty or if he is the sole or even the most important guilty person, little of the media frenzy seems to focus on the role of compassion in our justice system.
Firstly what is compassion? According to Wikipedia, Compassion is a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. Commonly this feeling gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. The article goes on to emphasize that compassion is considered as among the greatest of virtues in all the major religions, including the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions.
Compassion in this sense is a key element in both the English and Scottish judicial systems, and both systems allow for a prisoner to be released early on compassionate grounds. In Scotland the regulations for this are set out in the Prisoner and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1992. As is the case in England, early release may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. In both jurisdictions a life expectancy of less than three months would appear to be the appropriate period for granting release on compassionate grounds.
As regards Al-Megrahi, since he is suffering from the latter stages of a terminal illness, there would appear to be very sound legal grounds for granting release on compassionate grounds. In England of course the well-known, if not infamous train robber, Ronnie Biggs was recently released on compassionate grounds. This too caused some upset and media outrage, though nothing on the scale of the current stushie over Al-Megrahi. Why all this outrage and why are the Americans so incensed?
It seems to me that there are three aspects to the growing frenzy about the possible release of Al-Megrahi. The first is the increasing attempt by people to invoke the concerns of the victims into our judicial system. This was the main reason for the outcry against the release of Ronnie Biggs. This elevation of the concerns of victims is to my mind deeply misguided and potentially dangerous. The creation of our judicial system and indeed of all other law based judicial systems is one of the great achievements of humanity. Previously crime and punishment was pretty much a hit and run affair. If you had the resources and physical power at your disposal you tried to seek revenge for any crime committed against you. This of course gave rise to years and years of feuds and vendettas, which were to the benefit of no-one. The creation of an impersonal law based justice system was precisely to do away with personal revenge. Alleged crimes would be prosecuted by the lawful authorities and judgement would be pronounced by judges and juries and judges would determine the appropriate punishment. And all would proceed according to due process as laid out in laws and regulations. All decisions on punishment should be taken by the relevant legal bodies guided by the relevant regulations, which is what is happening in the Al-Megrahi case. We do not in Scotland live in a society ruled by revenge, but by justice and the complaints of the relatives should have no bearing on the case.
The other two aspects to this case both relate to its American dimension. As the plane that was blown up was an American plane flying for an American company and most of the dead were American citizens, then there are sound grounds for the USA to take an interest in the case. In addition as the suspects were alleged to be acting on behalf of other states seeking to carry out an act of terrorism it is clear that the USA would have a further reason for its interest in the case. At this stage in the proceedings the American interest seems to be base on two factors. This first is that most of the American relatives and most Americans in general just want Al-Megrahi to die in jail. This stems from the fact that the American justice system does not seem to allow for compassionate release, or indeed for compassion at all. Which is surprising given that compassion is such a highly regarded religious virtue and that most Americans profess to be deeply religious. Whatever the reason most Americans are deeply resentful of the idea that someone like Al-Megrahi can be even considered for compassion. Which just goes to remind us that Americans are not really like us at all. Compassion is something that comes from the goodness of the giver and has nothing to do with the goodness or badness of the receiver. To not want to help relieve the suffering of someone near to death is to be motivated more by revenge and retribution than by justice.
The other factor that motivates many Americans and almost certainly its government is the terrorist connection. Punishing Al-Megrahi and letting him die in prison is seen by many Americans as a good and worthwhile message to send out to would be terrorists. Which again leads one to question the judgement of leading Americans. I would have thought that to die in prison would ensure some kind of hero and cult status for Al-Megrahi and act as an even greater incentive to would be terrorists. At any rate to judge by the public comments made by Hillary Clinton and various senators I would imagine that there is a lot more private lobbying and arm twisting going on between Washington and London. Given that the UK government sanctioned the early release of Ronnie Biggs it will be interesting to see if they give in to US pressure and try to influence the decision of the Scottish government or if they are strong enough to publicly and privately stand up for the principle of compassionate release which is fundamental to justice in both England and Scotland.
As I, like everyone else am not privy to the details of Al-Megrahi's illness I refrain from judging the case. This is something for the relevant authorities who will be in possession of all the known facts. This is how our justice system works. What I am most concerned about is the need to restate and uphold the sound moral and legal principles behind the practice of granting early release on grounds of compassion.