The release by Scotland of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, who was expected to spend his life in prison for the 1988 bombing of a Pan American jetliner, was merciful, certainly, but an outrage nonetheless. The “compassionate release” of the terminally ill Libyan terrorist showed no compassion for relatives of the 270 people killed when the jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Compounding their trauma was the muted protest of the Obama administration.
Instead of viewing the special relationship between the United States and Britain as a cause for candor, the president, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. resorted to diplomatic circumlocution. The president called Megrahi’s release “a mistake” and was reduced to asking Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi not to treat Megrahi as a hero and to place him under house arrest. Clinton issued a statement calling the release “deeply disappointing.” Holder shifted into passive voice to say that the interests of justice “have not been served by this decision.”
This country has a special interest in punishment for Megrahi because 189 of the victims were Americans, including 35 Syracuse University students returning home for the Christmas season. But whatever their nationality, they were innocent victims of an attack that virtually defined the term “terrorism.” For many of their families, a life sentence was the minimum punishment to be meted out to Megrahi. His release and repatriation after serving only eight years thus upends their expectations and undermines the argument that life in prison is an acceptable alternative to execution.
In announcing that he was releasing Megrahi because of the prisoner’s advanced prostate cancer, Scottish Minister of Justice Kenny MacAskill sought to shift blame to Britain, which has sole authority in foreign affairs. He said the British government had declined to offer an opinion on the proposed transfer, and also noted that officials from London had negotiated a prisoner-transfer agreement with Libya that failed to provide exclusion for Megrahi. Yet neither that agreement nor Scottish guidelines for compassionate release required MacAskill to release the terrorist. MacAskill’s blinkered interpretation of “compassion” took no account of the enormity of Megrahi’s crime or his refusal to acknowledge his guilt. Nor are victims’ families likely to be assuaged by MacAskill’s patronizing promise that Megrahi “now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.”
It’s naive to pretend that foreign policy considerations never affect the administration of justice. But no reason of state justified Megrahi’s release. Libya already has been amply rewarded by the West for renouncing the development of weapons of mass destruction.
In reacting to Megrahi’s release, relatives of the victims used words such as “disgusting” and “outrage.” The Obama administration should have been equally, and openly, appalled.