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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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