[Five years ago this week we were all on tenterhooks waiting for Kenny MacAskill’s decision on the Libyan Government’s application for transfer of Abdelbaset Megrahi to Libya to serve the remainder of his sentence and on Megrahi’s own application for compassionate release in view of his terminal prostate cancer. The following are excerpts from an article by Magnus Linklater published in The Times on 18 August 2009:]
It is hard to overstate the three issues at the heart of the Lockerbie affair. The first is compassion — for a man, who may be innocent, and is dying in prison. The second is justice — the search for truth about a deadly act of terrorism. The third is reputation — the probity and good name of a government seeking to balance all these against the need to do the right thing.
To sacrifice all three in the course of a week, while at the same time emerging as weak, indecisive, secretive and self-serving, is a quite spectacular achievement. Yet that is what the Nationalist administration in Scotland has succeeded in doing in the course of its first important appearance on the international stage. (...)
The years roll by as a lengthy appeal process unwinds, each time attracting an accumulation of doubt as campaigners dig up claim and counterclaim, suggesting that the conviction was unsafe. Meanwhile, the man himself develops prostate cancer and is said to be close to death. The final appeal, his family say, may come too late. (...)
After indicating that he was “minded” to release the bomber on compassionate grounds, Mr MacAskill did something Macchiavelli would certainly have forbidden — he went into prison to see the man himself. Minister and terrorist face to face, a meeting that ensured that Mr MacAskill was no longer at arm’s length from the affair.
What did they say to each other? We do not know. But within days, it emerged that Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi would indeed be released on compassionate grounds, and might well be back in Libya within a week — in time for Ramadan.
There were, of course, protests from American relatives, but those had been expected. The case would continue, they were told, even in the absence of the accused. But then, just as we were adjusting to this, the defence team announced that it was dropping his appeal.
This had the immediate effect of alienating not only those who had argued that al-Megrahi should stay in prison, but those who wanted him returned; they had always insisted that the case must go on so that his name would be cleared. The immediate supposition was that a deal had been done in that prison cell, perhaps to prevent embarrassing disclosures in the High Court. As for the rest of us, we mourned that the last chance of getting at the truth of this murky, contentious and unresolved mystery was now lost.