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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.

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The white van that took Megrahi from Greenock Prison to Libyan freedom was jeered by a small group of protestors. David Mundell, a Scottish member of the Westminster Parliament in London whose constituency includes Lockerbie, attacked the decision. "It does sends out the wrong signals about Scottish justice. Mr. MacAskill's speech could have been delivered from the pulpit such were its overtones," said the opposition politician.

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A history of compassionate release

But Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a group that has worked on British prison reform since 1866, maintains that a strong body of public opinion in the UK has always supported compassionate release.

She points out that Megrahi, isn't that much of an outlier. Ronnie Biggs, serving a 30-year sentence for the so-called "Great Train Robbery" of 1963, was released earlier this month on compassionate grounds. Mr. Biggs had spent 30 years on the run and only returned to Britain to stand trial in 2001.

"There is a general recognition that when people are coming to the end of their life, they should be able to be with their families," she says. "It's a case of 'for goodness sake, we have exacted our pound of flesh' and an element of forgiveness. The question is, what good does it do to keep people in prison in these circumstances? Does it make you feel better about the loss of your son or daughter? Does their [the prisoner's] pain assuage your pain?"

Motivated by money?

Many of the US family members say those questions miss the point. Ms. Wolfe says a "measure of justice" is better than none at all, and she also feels that Megrahi's ongoing detention was the only chance that more would be learned about the Lockerbie bombing.

While there are differences of opinion about Megrahi's guilt among the families of victims, almost none of them think Megrahi acted alone and many of them think other governments aside from Libya may have been involved.

Of course, there are those who say Megrahi's release had less to do with compassion and more to do with a desire by the British government to normalize relations with Libya.

The release is a major feather in the cap for Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi ahead of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the coups that brought him to power next week, and both US and British oil companies have been pushing to do more business in the oil-rich nation.

Caving in

Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, said "heaven forbid that we are caving in for commercial needs to releasing prisoners who have committed terrible crimes."

Others, such as Jessica Berens of the charity Action for Prisoners' Families, insist a British sense of fair play stands in contrast to the laws of some of the more punitive US states.

"An eye for an eye would not be looked on kindly as a philosophy here – partly perhaps because the ruling classes and opinionmakers do not tend to come from any strident belief system – and indeed look quite suspiciously on those who do," she added.

Dr. Easton nevertheless cautions that Britons are also split on Megrahi's release and suggests that in some ways this even plays out as a Scottish-English divide, particularly when it comes to many English inhabitants of the more conservative counties in the south of the country.

• Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report.