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Megrahi’s Compassionate Release

Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie, Scotland. Photo: Air Accident Investigation Branch.

Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie, Scotland. Photo: Air Accident Investigation Branch.

The compassionate release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, has been roundly condemned by both the U.S. government and the American media. President Obama called the release “a mistake,” and Hillary Clinton, who had already said it would be “absolutely wrong” to free him, was “deeply disappointed.” There are two primary questions here. The first is whether Megrahi, and, indeed, Qaddafi’s regime in general, was responsible for the bombings, a question I raised in my 2006 examination of the Libyan political system for this magazine. The second is whether dying people, no matter how gross their sins, deserve compassion, and should be allowed to die at home. But the real issue lies in the conjunction of these two problems. Does the possibility that someone has been wrongly imprisoned increase the imperative to offer compassionate release?

The fact that Megrahi was convicted on thin evidence has been noted by many who were close to the original trial and the hastily assembled first appeal. Robert Black, the Scottish lawyer who was the architect of the original trial, described it as “the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for a hundred years.” Professor Hans Köchler, appointed by Kofi Annan to observe the trial for the U.N., called the second court’s decision a “spectacular miscarriage of justice.” One of the primary witnesses—Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as having bought the clothes that investigators believed were wrapped around the bomb—has been largely discredited, and the assertion that the Swiss Mebo MST-13 timer used to detonate the bomb had been sold only to the Libyans has proved false. The original C.I.A. inquiries focussed on Tehran, where there had been calls for vengeance after a U.S. Navy cruiser accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane. Robert Baer, who worked on the case for the C.I.A., has said that Iran was responsible, and “60 Minutes” put forward, in 2000, the possibility that Tehran hired a Syria-based Palestinian organization to stage the attack. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review, which examined all this material, determined there was evidence for a second appeal, and that appeal was underway when doctors said Megrahi had only three months to live. Conspiracy theories abound: that the Libyans were fingered in the first place to avoid a confrontation with Iran at a delicate time; that this political jig would have become broadly known if Megrahi hadn’t dropped the appeal in exchange for compassionate release; that Scotland released Megrahi in order to gain access to Libyan oil; and many others too baroque to rehearse here. Any of these may be true, but they would take many years to unfurl. While the conviction of Megrahi may prove to be right, no one could describe it as anywhere near watertight, and reasonable doubt does remain a standard for legal innocence.

Imprisonment serves three functions. It removes people who might commit further crimes from a context in which they can commit them. There was no need to keep Megrahi behind bars with this objective. It sends a signal to others tempted to commit similar crimes that there is a cost. Megrahi’s release on his deathbed will not encourage terrorists; indeed, shows of humane treatment of this kind dampen Islamic anti-Americanism. Finally, it allows those who were injured in a crime to feel the satisfactions of revenge—the retribution principle. This is the ugliest of the three reasons, and indulging it is a problematical standard for compassion. It’s not that it’s wrong, per se, but that it has limits, and the dying days of a man who is possibly innocent of this particular crime seem too high a price to pay for it.

Megrahi has received a hero’s welcome in Libya because Libyans feel that they have been unfairly scapegoated by the West, and that Megrahi has been a martyr to international prejudice against them. They are angry that the U.S. appears not to have fulfilled what they understood as promises of complete diplomatic recognition following Qaddafi’s payment of damages to the Lockerbie families and his renunciation of a nuclear program. They believed in Megrahi’s innocence all along and now feel vindicated, and are thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of American outrage, which is to them as jingoistic as we perceive their jubilation to be. The posture of the President and the Secretary of State is designed to cater to the tough-on-terrorists approach required of all American politicians, and to play to those Lockerbie families who reconciled themselves to tragedy only by believing that the guilty were caught and punished. In the U.S., the voices of the vengeful have been loudest. But, in fact, many Lockerbie families believe that Megrahi was wrongly convicted. Martin Cadman, who lost a son in the disaster, said the trial was “a farce” and that the release of Megrahi was “just righting a wrong.” Jim Swire, who lost a daughter, said, “As time goes by it will become clear that he had nothing to do with it.” The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, now under attack, was courageous in allowing the confusing evidence to tilt in favor of letting a sick man go home.