EDINBURGH -- Do not believe that Scotland was united behind Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to grant "compassionate" release to the terminally ill convicted Pan Am 103 bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in August.
When al-Megrahi flew home to a hero's welcome in Libya, Member of Scottish Parliament Richard Baker recalls "universal outrage" among Scots at the sight of Scotland's flag "being waved to welcome home the Lockerbie bomber in Tripoli. It just turned stomachs" -- and produced among sensible Scots "profound shame and embarrassment."
Al-Megrahi was released after the former Libyan intelligence officer served a mere eight years in Scottish prison for his conviction for the 1988 airline bombing that killed 270 people, including 11 souls on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament in Holyrood voted 73-50 in favor of a measure that determined that MacAskill mishandled the decision. A poll conducted for the BBC found that 60 percent of Scots were opposed to Megrahi's early release; 32 percent supported it.
To Americans, there is much missing in this case of Scottish justice -- although the Scots won jurisdiction for this nightmare the hard way. If Pan Am 103 had crashed out to sea instead of onto Scottish soil, then there would have been no trail of evidence that led a team of tireless international investigators to al-Megrahi.
The Pan Am bombers deserved capital punishment, but Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy was not about to turn over al-Megrahi and his suspected accomplice to the United States for a trial that could result in the death penalty. He did turn them over to Scotland, however, for a trial conducted in The Netherlands. Some two years later, three judges acquitted the other suspect, but found al-Megrahi guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. Sort of.
It turned out that al-Megrahi's life sentence left him eligible for parole after 20 years. As former FBI Special Agent Richard A. Marquise wrote in his book, "Scotbom: Evidence and the Lockerbie Investigation," family members attending the trial were aghast at the light sentence; one person "calculated that al-Megrahi was going to be in prison for a period of 27 days for each of the 270 murders."
That sorry estimate turned out to be optimistic. Brian Flynn, whose 21-year-old brother, J.P. Flynn, was a Syracuse University student when he died in the bombing, told me that his parents spent every day in court for six months and: "They said it actually works." But when al-Megrahi was let go, Flynn added, "It was so dirty. What was it all for?"
Flynn said, "These people don't care." It is especially galling that the justice secretary's "compassionate" gambit stoked the fires of conspiracy theorists who claim that al-Megrahi and Libya are not responsible -- despite a unanimous verdict of guilt and a trail of evidence that connected the Libyan intelligence officer to the bomb. For whatever reason, they willfully ignore Libya's 2003 acceptance of "responsibility for the actions of its officials" and Libya's payment of $2.7 billion to the families of Lockerbie's victims. They also ignore that al-Megrahi had dropped his appeal -- which was based on a claim of innocence -- even though he did not have to do so in order to win compassionate release.
News reports have focused on Libya's push for Megrahi's release during negotiations with the British government for a $900 million oil contract. A Holyrood justice committee investigation may or may not bring new information to light.
Whether or not there is a link, al-Megrahi would not have been freed were it not for a philosophy, precious to MacAskill's Scottish National Party, that puts compassion for the criminal before compassion for the victims.
This philosophy eschewed capital punishment for a man convicted for the murder of 270 victims. This philosophy passed on sentencing al-Megrahi to life behind bars by holding out the hope of parole. When doctors said prostate cancer might kill al-Megrahi within three months, this philosophy was not content to allow al-Megrahi to spend his final days in a prison hospital, but instead sent al-Megrahi to a hero's welcome in his homeland.
Not all Scots are happy. A relative of a lost Lockerbie family told me that he would prefer to see a more victim-centered approach in the Scottish criminal justice system.
While MacAskill claimed that compassion -- "no matter the severity of provocation or the atrocity perpetrated" -- required al-Megrahi's release to his family and homeland, the Scotsman newspaper reported Oct. 24 that al-Megrahi had "already survived longer since his release than any of the six other criminals given compassionate release" by MacAskill.
At the time of al-Megrahi's release, Khadafy's son, Seif al-Islam Khadafy, thanked the Scottish government "for its courageous decision and understanding of a special human situation." Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond was like-minded when he compared MacAskill to India's Mahatma Gandhi. Said Salmond: "Sometimes someone has to break the cycle of retribution with an act of compassion."
Since when are eight years in prison for the murder of 270 people considered retribution? Where is the compassion for the Scottish families? Or are they less important than a Libyan intelligence agent? Baker marveled: Al-Megrahi was "Scotland's greatest ever mass murderer -- and yet he's been given special treatment." No worries. The Herald of Glasgow, Scotland, announced this month that MacAskill is on its short list to be named Politician of the Year.