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Lockerbie bomber release exposes US-British divide on justice

Prisoners' rights are well developed and compassionate release more common in Britain than in America, say experts.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2009

Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, 3rd left wearing white, walks on to his airplane at Glasgow International Airport, Glasgow Scotland, onThursday.

Scott Heppell/ AP



Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's granting of "compassionate release" Thursday to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence agent convicted of murdering 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, earned an outraged response from US officials and family members of the victims.

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "deeply disappointed" at the Scottish decision, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, whose state lost 30 residents in the attack, said the release is "an outrage ... that sends a message out to terrorists."

Rosemary Wolfe, whose 20-year-old stepdaughter Miriam was murdered in the attack said: "MacAskill forgot the compassion he should have for the families, for the victims. Compassion for a man who's shown no remorse makes no sense to me." Of the dead, 189 were Americans. The Scottish authorities say Mr. Megrahi has only a few months to live and should be allowed to die surrounded by his family.

But while opposition to the release has been heated in the US, a far different picture emerged today across Britain.

The only man convicted in the worst terrorist attack in British history, which left an indelible mark on tiny Lockerbie where 11 people where killed by falling debris, appears to be receiving a greater degree of sympathy.

British-American divide

While that's in part because many of the British victims' families have long had doubts about Megrahi's involvement in the bombing, deep differences between Britons and Americans on crime and punishment are being exposed.

In many cases, where the American attitude toward a convict is "let him rot" the British one is to ask if the prisoner hasn't suffered enough.

"There is a British thing about fair play and not kicking someone when they are down," says Dr. Susan Easton, an expert on reforming criminals and managing prisons at London's Brunel Law School and author of the forthcoming book "Prisoners' rights: principles and practice." She says the different American and British attitudes are reflected in the prisons themselves. In the United Kingdom, prisons are more humane and comfortable than their American equivalents. "Dying in an English prison would be very different from dying in an American supermax," she says.

MacAskill, explaining his decision, captured the cultural difference: "Mr. al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days ... but that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."

A US attorney general or a senior department of justice official making a similar argument before the American people on behalf of a mass murderer is hard to imagine.

MacAskill's "pulpit"

Still, not everyone in Scotland is happy with the decision.