The Church of Scotland has intervened in the case of the Lockerbie bomber, urging the government to free the man convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history.
The Kirk claims it is unchristian to keep Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, in jail and has urged Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, to free him on compassionate grounds.
Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Kirk’s church and society council, appealed to the government after medical reports suggested the Libyan may only have weeks to live. His intervention comes just weeks before the justice minister is due to rule on the case.
“We have to continue to feel hugely for the families of those who died in the Lockerbie bombing. Nonetheless it would seem that the compassionate response would be to release Mr Megrahi to his family for the remaining days of his life,” said Galloway.
“The Christian faith places forgiveness and compassion close to its centre and while the justice system rightly always includes an element of punishment, in the current circumstances we have to be able to lay some of that aside.
“In other words, to err on the side of compassion and forgiveness is where on balance we believe society should seek to lean.” (...)
The intervention by the church, which has 600,000 members, will put pressure on MacAskill, whose decision to meet Megrahi was widely criticised and prompted accusations that the convicted terrorist was being given preferential treatment.
Megrahi’s supporters have grown hopeful that he will either be handed over to Libya or freed, believing it would be a severe embarrassment to the government if he were to die in a Scottish jail. Last week Jack Straw, the UK justice secretary, freed Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, on compassionate grounds after being told he is severely ill with pneumonia and is unlikely to recover.
MacAskill requested a new medical report on the condition of Megrahi, who has been advised by consultants that the disease is at an advanced stage.
A condition of the prisoner transfer treaty is that prisoners cannot leave the country while criminal proceedings are ongoing. The 57-year-old is believed to be prepared to drop his appeal against his conviction in order to spend the rest of his life close to his family in Libya. If, however, he is freed on compassionate grounds he could continue to pursue his appeal.
Last night American relatives of those who died criticised the Kirk’s intervention.
Bob Monetti of New Jersey, whose son Rick was among the victims of the bombing, said: “This is nonsense. This is the first word I have ever heard from the Church of Scotland in 21 years. They didn’t send us any condolences, they didn’t send us any support.
“The reason the United States has separation of church and state is because church people usually get it wrong. I’d like to be compassionate but this man may die next week or he may live 10 years.”
John Lamont, community safety spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “Unless we have compelling medical evidence suggesting release on the grounds of compassion is considered, justice requires that the sentence imposed is the sentence served, subject of course to Mr Megrahi’s ongoing appeal.”
A recent Cello MRUK poll for The Sunday Times indicated that while 49% of Scots wanted Megrahi to remain in Scotland, 40% thought he should serve the rest of his sentence in Libya and 11% said he should be freed.
[From an article by Jason Allardyce in the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times.
This story has been picked up by the Monday editions of a number of daily newspapers. The Scotsman's report can be read here; and the Daily Express's here.]