Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Justice tempered with Mercy

Oh, this could get me into so much trouble, and I’m a week or so late writing this down, but what’s life or the blogosphere if you cannot say how you feel on the issues of the day.

So let’s have a brief history lesson. On Wednesday 21st December 1988 flight Pan Am 103 took off after a delay from London Heathrow on route to New York with 243 passengers and 16 crew on board. A short while after take off, a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of the plane, blowing the plane apart and killing all on board. Had the flight taken off on time, it would have been over the Atlantic. Instead the debris fell on the border town of Lockerbie, killing 11 people on the ground as it impacted.

Two hundred and seventy deaths – I still remember watching the news that night in my girlfriend’s house in Newcastle and almost being physically sick. It was the worst ever air disaster in British airspace, the biggest ever criminal investigation in Scottish legal history and led by the smallest police force in Scotland. After three years of joint investigation with the FBI, it was determined that Libyan agents were responsible and indictments issued against two people – Lamin Khalifah Fhimah and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. After years of sanctions and negotiations, both men were handed over on neutral ground, to face trial under Scottish law. In 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted of murder and sentenced to life to be served in a Scottish prison and Fhimah was acquitted. The convicted man has protested his innocence to this day, lodging several appeals, but last week was released on compassionate grounds after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was immediately returned to Libya, to what appeared to be a hero’s welcome.

Those are the facts – but the decision to release him has caused worldwide revulsion and a call for Americans to boycott all things Scottish.

Let me deal with that one first – Freedom Liquor instead of Whisky? Besides, as another person posted last week, you do that and you boycott penicillin, rubber tyres, and television – all Scottish inventions.

However, let’s be serious for a moment and consider the position of Ken McConnell, the Scottish Justice Minister. Firstly, bear in mind Scottish law is different from the law in England and Wales, and the power to make these decisions was devolved to the Scottish Assembly – hence the reason people like Jack Straw and Gordon Brown (both Scots) can leave Mr McConnell to take the full flak.

Also, bear in mind that I have no real love for the Scottish National Party, of which Mr McConnell is a member. I grew up in Scotland, and actually went to school with Alex Salmond’s sister – my own older sister went to school with him. I do not agree with many of his politics or positions, but they are the people who made the decision.

Have you ever looked at the statue of Justice on the Old Bailey? She is blindfolded, because justice has to be seen to be impartial. She carries a sword to wield punishment, but also a set of scales, to signify that justice had to be balanced – and mercy has to play a part in that.

That’s the rub – Justice has to be tempered with mercy, because if it is not it’s no longer a sharp instrument but a blunt club that wounds all. Did you hear Mr McConnell’s statement when the release of al-Megrahi was announced? He was very clear that this was a decision based on Scottish law and procedures, despite the fact this was the man forever labelled as the “Lockerbie Bomber.” You have to put labels aside in these situations, and consider this fact – whatever his crime, this man was dying, and justice sometimes means that you allow him to die with dignity despite your own personal feelings about the crime he was convicted of.

Did he do the crime? We may never know – this last appeal was withdrawn (for reasons that seem dubiously linked to his release) – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest Libya were not responsible. Can he ever be forgiven? Not my call – and the reactions of the survivors of those who died show the polarity of that question. Was there political interference? Looks that way, but again we will not know for thirty years.

I also think it was wrong he was welcomed back the way he was, but that’s consistent with the way Libyans and in particular Colonel Gaddafi has worked in the past.

You may also have heard that the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, has been released to die after a long campaign. That was on the sign-off of the Justice Minister – one Jack Straw, who argued for years that could not happen. Hypocrisy? I’ll let you decide that.

As for Mr al-Megrahi? He will answer to a higher court soon for whatever he did. There is where true justice and retribution is paid, not here on Earth.

1 comment:

Rob S. said...

Great post, Mike. I'm glad to see another calm perspective on this -- and one that understands the legal issues, to boot.