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Who benefits from release?

Brian Taylor | 14:36 UK time, Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A question. Cui bono? For whose good? Whose interest is served?

A question we might now reasonably pose with regard to the pending decision affecting Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

I know - I have been told often enough - that Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, is acting in a "quasi-judicial" role with regard to the fate of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

This point is usually made in order either to explain that this is an individual decision for Mr MacAskill or, equally commonly, to rebut suggestions of any political deal surrounding this decision.

However much it may be true that the decision is quasi-judicial, there is another truth. Kenny MacAskill is not a judge. He is an elected politician, rightly subject to public opinion and, in particular, the views of his voters.

So, again, cui bono? What interests would be served by a decision to return Megrahi to Libya?

Palpably, the prisoner's own interests would be served. Either if he is returned to Libya to serve the remainder of his sentence or, more explicitly, if he is freed on compassionate grounds to spend what remains of his life with his family.

Merciful liberty

Given that the Libyan government has pressed for his return to Libya under prisoner transfer, one must also say that the interests of Tripoli would be served by a decision to concede to that request or the alternative of merciful liberty.

But who else? It would seem that, in one respect at least, the interests of the United Kingdom government and security services have already been served by the ending of the Megrahi appeal. London does not want the disclosure of further documents relating to the case, as demanded by Megrahi's legal team.

How about the United States? Just as with London, it is conceivable that there are interests in Washington who welcome the final closure of the case, the ending of the appeal.

Against that, one must set the views voiced by sundry senators and, most influentially, by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

At one level, their demand that Megrahi stay in prison in Scotland may simply be a reflection of constituency interests in the US, an expression of the disquiet expressed by US relatives of those who died in Pan Am 103.

Ms Clinton's Senate seat included Syracuse University. Thirty five students from Syracuse died in the tragedy on 21 December 1988.

Scottish ministers must hope that such discontent is primarily aimed at the option of prisoner transfer and not the more likely avenue of compassionate release.

That, I would suggest, is likely to be a tough sell. US opinion may simply find it difficult to understand why a man convicted of involvement in the death of 270 people, including US citizens, has been released. They may focus upon the fact of release - and not upon the mitigating argument of mercy.

Which brings us to Scottish interest. One again, cui bono? Whose interests are served here?

Ending the appeal

Remember that Scottish ministers are adamant that there has been no deal, there will be no deal. They insist that the issues of Megrahi's fate and the abandonment of his appeals against conviction and sentence are entirely separate.

Plus they argue that the Scottish Government - by contrast with others - has no interest in securing the abandonment of the appeals.

If we accept that at face value, then that means that the Scottish Government does not seek to claim any gain from the ending of the Megrahi appeal. No governmental interest is served.

Further, ministers will not, cannot claim that they have acted, covertly or openly, in the interests of co-operation with the UK Government.

So, to put it bluntly, what does Scotland get? Individual gratitude, perhaps, for an individual act of mercy. Collective gratitude from Libya. An end to responsibility for a controversial and dying prisoner.

Against that, one must set the prospect of resentment in the United States and disquiet among other relatives who still want to get at the facts surrounding the case.

The first should not be over-stated now - and may decline with time and careful handling. The second may at least be addressed, if not answered, by ministerial indications that they remain relaxed about the prospect of an inquiry into the tragedy.

Still and all, right now, it may be difficult to market this as a particularly good deal for Scotland, should the Lockerbie convict be released.


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