Alex Massie

Sending the Lockerbie Bomber Home

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I could have done without Kenny MacAskill talking quite so much about our values "as a people", if only because, as Fraser writes, we actually often do insist that prisoners die in jail. That though, is really an argument for showing a degree of compassion more often, not for denying it in this instance, no matter the ghastliness of the cime for which Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted.

Nonetheless, on balance, I thought MacAskill's justification of his decision to release Megrahi so that he may die at home and in the company of his family, was about as good as could have been expected given both the circumstances and the man making the decision. The easy decision - certainly the one that Jack Straw would have made had it been his responsibility - would have been to insist that Megrahi die in prison. Deciding otherwise automatically opens MacAskill to accusations of grandstanding and political posturing.

Unsurprisingly, then, reaction to MacAskill's decision has split along partisan grounds: SNP supporters think he did well; those most hostil to the nationalists -such as Brother Nelson - are appalled.

My own preference would have been for Megrahi's appeal to continue, no matter how embarrassing that might have proved. Contra Fraser, there is some reason to suppose that Megrahi's conviction is unsafe. Not all the questions raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission have been answered.

That leaves us in an unsatisfactory position. Megrahi and, more widely, Libya may well be guilty. Whether the evidence is sufficient to support a Guilty rather than a Not Proven verdict in court is a different matter. To further complicate matters, few people believe that Megrahi, even if he did put the bomb on the plane, was the man behind the plot to destroy Pan-Am 103. Consequently and in one sense, Megrahi is a symbolic prisoner. That this is so, I think, undermines the case for insisting that he die in Greenock Prison.

He might indeed receive better care in Scotland than in Libya but since the medical experts agree that there is no treatment available, nor any prospect of his condition improving this seems something of a moot point.

MacAskill insists there was no quid pro quo. No deal made that Megrahi would drop his appeal on the understanding that he would then be freed - but not cleared - on compassionate grounds. Perhaps. But the suspicion that there was such a deal remains powerful and, perhaps, unavoidable. This too is unsatisfactory and, again, my preference would have been for his appeal to have continued. The gravest error, if there is one, lies in accepting Megrahi's petition to abandon his appeal.

But once that had happened, it is hard to see how insisting that he live his remaining weeks behind bars would bring any greater "closure" to the Lockerbie affair. Megrahi, in the end, is not the main issue. The questions that still swirl around this murky episode remain and would have done so regardless of the decision announced by Kenny MacAskill today.

The families of the victims' disappointment at this release is understandable. But the true disappointment is that we still know less about the Lockerbie bombing, after 21 years, than is ideal. In the end that may well suit all the governments that have a stake in the matter, each of whom would like to "move on" and try and consign Lockerbie to history.

That, not one's opinion of Kenny MacAskill, is the real issue today. And that means that MacAskill's choice - difficult, brave, controversial or scandalous as you see fitĀ  - is, in the end, a sideshow. Megrahi will die and die soon and I'm not sure (though good people can disagree in good faith on this) what would really have been served by insisting that he perish behind bars rather than at home. The Big Questions about Lockerbie remain, and will remain absent an inquiry, unresolved.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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