[What follows is excerpted from a long article about former Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill published on the website of Holyrood magazine on 15 January:]
MacAskill was perceived by some as a solid pair of hands in justice, to others as far too close to its institutions, but he came to global prominence in 2009 when he made the decision to release the so-called ‘Lockerbie bomber’, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, from prison on compassionate grounds so he could return to Libya to die having been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
MacAskill took sole responsibility for the controversial decision and delivered it to a specially recalled parliament with all the gravity of a Presbyterian minister giving a sermon. He said Megrahi faced a sentence imposed by a “higher power”, adding: “It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”
It felt at the time that the decision to free Megrahi was a truly momentous one and that the eyes of the world were on Scotland. Opprobrium was heaped on the justice secretary from the relatives of the US victims of the bombing and political figures, including President Obama and the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke out against it. (...)
Almost 35 years to the day that Pan Am Flight 103 came down over Lockerbie, I ask MacAskill how heavy that decision had weighed on him.
“It didn’t, I just did what was my job to do,” he says, dismissively, in his distinctive sing-song tone. “I remember going to speak to special advisers when we found out Megrahi was ill and it was all agreed this would be my decision alone, you could lose a cabinet secretary, but you cannot lose the government. So that put a firewall around it in terms of the correct procedures. You also have to remember, it was actually a very short period of time because although he was diagnosed earlier, there was a frenetic summer that basically went, June, July, and that was it, it was over. (...)
“At the end of the day, I stand by the decision I made. I think history has proven that, and Abu Agila Masud is currently in a US prison having been charged with making the bomb. The only thing that continues to irritate me is those that view Megrahi as some, you know, Arab saint – he was involved. He was low level, he was the highest-ranking Libyan that the Libyans were prepared to hand over, and he was the lowest down the rung that the West was prepared to accept. But he was released following all the rules and guidance and on a point of principle. He lived longer than expected, which caused some difficulties, but equally, that was because he was getting treatment that we didn’t offer on the NHS and, more importantly, as everybody knows, if you’ve got a reason to live, then you do live longer, as opposed to being sad in a lonely prison cell on your own and you turn your face to the wall. I’ve seen that with family in hospital, they just decide life isn’t for them, and so that’s what happened. I have no doubts that the right decision was made, none.”
[RB: Kenny MacAskill's contention that Megrahi was involved in the Lockerbie bombing, albeit at a low level, has been advanced by him before. A detailed rebuttal can be found here: The unravelling of Kenny MacAskill ... and the case against Megrahi.]