Compassion and mercy are legitimate tools in administering justice. But they lose their meaning when politics enters the picture, as in the case of the release of the "Lockerbie bomber."
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi – the only person convicted in the 1988 explosion of a US-bound Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland – was released Aug. 20 after serving eight years of a life sentence amounting to a minimum of 27 years. Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill granted the release, which was requested by the prisoner, on compassionate grounds due to a diagnosed terminal illness.
Mr. Megrahi received a hero's welcome from crowds bused to the Tripoli airport by authorities (contrary to Libyan assurances of a low-key reception). Mr. MacAskill received scathing criticism – especially from American families of the 270 victims of the suitcase bombing of Flight 103, and also from US officials.
FBI director Robert Mueller said the release gave comfort to terrorists. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it "obviously a political decision." Loved ones of those killed are outraged that a convicted terrorist, who never showed remorse, was let go early. President Obama called the release "a mistake."
Today, MacAskill was again forced to defend his decision, this time before a special session of the Scottish parliament. Compassionate release is a regular feature of the Scottish judicial system, and can come into play when a prisoner is thought to be close to death. In the US, too, presidents and governors show mercy through their power to pardon.
Last week, MacAskill admitted that Megrahi had shown no compassion to the victims, but "that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."
Scottish justice demands that "judgment be imposed but compassion be available," he explained, adding that the atrocity of the crime "should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold." Indeed, those values help distinguish civilization from terrorism.
But the politics around the Lockerbie case make it impossible to judge the merits of this decision. Consider these circumstances:
The decision by Libya to hand over Megrahi for prosecution in 1999 was itself part of an international political bargain in which Libya could throw off global sanctions in exchange for extradition of suspects and compensation to victims' families.
Now suspicion is rife that the release is part of a larger trade, oil, and gas understanding between Britain and Libya. The son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi said Megrahi was part of such talks. The British government doesn't deny discussions, but calls the rumored deal "wrong," "implausible," and "offensive."
And yet, in a warming of relations with Libya, the British government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair worked out a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya that was finally ratified by the British Parliament in April. The deal notably did not exclude Megrahi.
The politics between London and Edinburgh may also come into play. The "devolution" of authority to Scotland grants it more independence from the United Kingdom and often puts the two capitals at odds. London may have found a convenient scapegoat in Edinburgh on this one.
And then there are suspicions surrounding the prosecution of the case itself. The belief among families of some British and Irish Lockerbie victims is that the prosecution was deeply flawed, that the British government is involved in a "coverup," and that Megrahi himself may be innocent – as he claims.
In 2007, a Scottish judicial review found grounds for Megrahi's appeal, which the former prisoner dropped in advance of his release. Was the release a compromise that spared Scotland possible embarrassment that might come out in an appeal?
MacAskill vehemently maintains that the release decision was his alone and made solely on the grounds of compassion. It's hard to hear him, however, when the gale-force winds of suspicion and politics are howling.