Remember Lockerbie? Yes the Scottish town that made headlines when a PanAm aircraft exploded in mid-air in 1988 killing 270 people.
It was said to have been blown up by a bomb planted in a passenger's luggage. Lockerbie is making news again. Last Thursday the Libyan convicted of planting that fateful bomb, Abdel baset Ali al-Megrahi, was released from a Scottish prison and sent home to die. This was done ostensibly on compassionate grounds as the man has terminal cancer and doctors believe he has just three months to live.
The news came right when I was trying to fathom the depths of anger and grief — and most of all vengeance — in the hearts of the many readers who had reacted strongly to my plea for a reprieve for Sarabjit Singh, the Indian accused of bomb attacks in Pakistan. I sympathise with these sentiments. But rationality should never be thrown to the winds. Holding Sarabjit responsible for the death of innocent people, many said he deserved to die. For them, to show compassion amounted to cowardice.
When al-Megrahi was freed, the reaction was strikingly similar. The Obama administration termed the move 'a mockery of justice' — 189 of those killed were Americans. Kara Weipz, from New Jersey who lost her brother in the incident, condemned al-Megrahi's release as 'utterly despicable.'
But the Scottish government announced its own reasons for setting al-Megrahi free. The Scottish justice secretary stated, 'No compassion was shown by him (al-Megrahi) to them (the victims). But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed, but compassion be available.'
This did not appeal to many and Libya's indiscretion in giving al-Megrahi an exuberant and widely publicised welcome in Tripoli and the subsequent charges of his release being a part of an oil deal provoked further controversy.
In this brouhaha an important issue has been totally lost. Was al-Megrahi really guilty? Serious doubts have been cast on the conduct of the trial by people who claim to be in the know. This is what needs to be understood clearly by the critics of compassion.
Ever since he was taken into custody in Libya, al-Megrahi continuously protested that he was innocent and did so again when he was released. He was faced with an 'appalling' choice, he said in his written statement. He could live the remaining days of his 'life under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction.' Or he could risk dying in prison in the hope that his name was cleared posthumously. He chose to withdraw his second appeal and return home 'carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted.'
It is significant that there are many, including some relatives of the victims, a former Labour MP and an SNP member of the Scottish parliament, who are convinced that the conviction is wrong because the case was not investigated thoroughly and the indictment was based on circumstantial evidence, while some vital facts were deliberately suppressed. The sole witness on whose evidence al-Megrahi was charged lacked credibility.
BBC's Reevel Alderson, who has been following the case closely, dubs al-Megrahi as 'a convenient scapegoat for a much bigger conspiracy.'
Alderson speaks of many question marks remaining in the case and 'it may be that we will never know exactly what happened in December 1988.'
Robert Fisk, The Independent's journalist who is widely recognised as an authority on the Middle East, also questions al-Megrahi's indictment. What is more he implicates the British government in this grave miscarriage of justice for the sake of political expediency. Fisk believes that al-Megrahi was induced to withdraw his appeal which 'might have told us the truth about Lockerbie.' According to him, neither the British nor the Libyans were interested in the truth being known as 'they would not [be able to] withstand the typhoon of information that an appeal would have revealed.'
The Lockerbie case — the indictment and the release of a man alleged to be a Libyan intelligence agent — indicates clearly how judicial systems are very often influenced by factors extraneous to the body of law that supposedly determines the judges' decision. Foreign relations, the nature of evidence and the quality of prosecution were clearly as decisive as the Scottish law under which al-Megrahi was tried in the Netherlands. His transfer from Tripoli to The Hague was effected after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya and the UN secretary general and Nelson Mandela, the South African president, had met Col Qadhafi.
The whole process is described by a blogger as being designed to bring about the 'respectabilisation' of Col Qadhafi who was then emerging from his pariah status.
The basic question to be asked is whether an individual's life can be made hostage to the numerous factors beyond his control. Britain did away with capital punishment in 1969. Al-Megrahi was lucky not to have been on death row. He didn't have to live under the shadow of the noose. In countries where the death penalty is still in vogue, one wonders how anyone with an iota of moral courage can deem himself to be absolutely certain about a person's guilt — however heinous the crime — and demand his life.
We still have to understand the goals of punishment. Classically these were said to be retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, restoration and incapacitation. Gradually, the emphasis shifted to the reformative nature of punishment. But it appears that vindictiveness — a base human instinct — is so powerful that people still seek retribution even though in the long run that may cause more harm.
That would explain why so many societies continue to support capital punishment. So blind is the drive to seek vengeance that the element of doubt never entered the minds of those who reacted so strongly to al-Megrahi's release and for those who denounced so vehemently the plea for Sarabjit's reprieve.