Releasing the Lockerbie bomber

14 August 2009

Mr Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, convicted of killing 270 people in the bomb attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, may soon be released from a Scottish jail on compassionate grounds. This issue has many elements and people have very strong views: as such, opinions will be divided whatever happens to Mr al-Megrahi.

There is reportedly a broad split between American and British relatives of victims on the question whether Mr al-Megrahi ought to be released or not. American relatives are broadly against the relase, and British relatives broadly supportive of the measure. There seems to be two linked issues. The first question is the soundness of Mr al-Megrahi’s conviction. The second concerns what the relatives are seeking: retribution or truth. It seems that American relatives are much more firmly convinced of Mr al-Megrahi’s guilt and see him responsible for the death of 270 people. As such, Mr al-Megrahi should suffer until his last breath. He must pay for his crime: death in captivity is a fitting retribution. On the British side, there is an unease that Mr al-Megrahi’s conviction may not be safe. Indeed, it is incredible that only Mr al-Megrahi can be resonsible for the entire terrorist operation, and there are many more things which remain hidden. It is for this ground, seeking the truth, that some British relatives want him released and wish him to pursue his appeal.

Naturally this broad difference between these two views translate into trans-Atlantic problems. It is not made easier by the fact that it’s the Scottish govenment, not the UK government, who has the final say. The Scots have long had a different legal tradition from England and Wales, and procedural problems and some confusion over the application of the law would have arisen anyway. However, the Labour government in Westminster and the SNP government in Holyrood do not always see eye-to-eye, and there could be some political tension. It must be hard for all parties concerned: US officials wouldn’t really know whom to talk, and FCO has to liaise with Scottish institutions. It’s generally true to say that more people are involved, more complicated it becomes to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the parties.

Libya comes into the scene as well. Libya was a former foe, but is now a friend: where does this potential release of Mr al-Megrahi fit? There must be some sort of negotiation going on involving the US, Britain and Libya.

There are many strands of speculations, as would be in such cases, when a decision is imminent and the outcome unclear. One compromise that will please no one, excepting perhaps Mr al-Megrahi and the Libyan government, is to transfer Mr al-Megrahi to a Libyan prison. In exchange Mr al-Megrahi will drop his appeal against his conviction. It satisfies those who see his guilt, but they will be disappointed that he may return to Libya to receive a hero’s welcome. It will displease those who see his conviction unsafe. They will probably see a deal or an act of collusion to bury the truth.

I wonder what historians will make of this in half a century or so. Perhaps we will by then have a clearer picture and understanding of what exactly happened. Perhaps it will remain a mystery. We can only wait and see.