Thursday, 20 August 2009

Prison, compassion and civilisation

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, was freed from jail today. The BBC reports the words of Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill:

"Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

"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 judgement be imposed, but compassion be available. For these reasons and these reasons alone, it is my decision that Mr Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die."

I believe he got that decision completely right. The grounds for it are the same as the grounds for the release of Ronnie Biggs, which I believe was also completely right. The background to the reasoning is different in the two cases, but is founded on the same principle.

In my view the consistency of the government's treatment of Ronnie Biggs goes back to the point at which he started moves to get back to this country in order to receive treatment on the NHS. There were people at that time saying he should not be allowed it, he should rot, etc, etc. But the decision to allow him back and to give him treatment was a supreme example of the British way of doing things. Ronnie Biggs was, and unfortunately still is, idolised by some because he beat the system. Newspaper pictures of him sipping champagne and pretending to a lifestyle that he rarely actually attained fed this delusive stance. When he returned to this country, he received his right, as a citizen of the UK - any citizen, whatever their moral or legal status - to treatment on the NHS. And in doing so we demonstrated that the system was then and always had been immeasurably better than that failed criminal and morally bankrupt person.

To my mind the same logic applied when it became apparent that he was terminally ill. (I am assuming that he actually is and hasn't been able to pull a Saunders.) There are rules that apply, and prisoners who are terminally ill are released from prison provided certain criteria are met. Biggs met these criteria so he was released, and I'm very glad that Jack Straw accepted the recommendation to release him and didn't try to do a Daily Mail. I am not glad for Biggs; as far as I am concerned he is contemptible. But I am glad because Jack Straw demonstrated again that the system that we have in this country is one to be proud of.

There is an argument that, because Biggs counts as a sort of celebrity prisoner, perhaps some political criteria should apply and he should perhaps be treated differently. It is a respectable argument but, without going into details, not one which, to my mind, applies in this case.

Now to al-Megrahi. (I will work on the basis that he is guilty, though I accept that there are arguments that he might not be.) The same two issues apply. Is he being treated according to the normal criteria? And are there arguments for saying that the normal criteria should not apply because of the nature of the case?

As far as I can see, he is being treated according to the normal criteria. These dictate that in his current state of health, he should be freed. Being free, he is then free to travel wherever he wishes. British law, quite properly, does not detain free people within these shores.

Should he be treated differently? Two reasons might apply. The first is that his crime was so heinous that he must be singled out from other criminals. The second is that political considerations might dictate that, in the fight against terrorism, it is legitimate and practical to apply different rules.

As to the first, I do not believe that a crime becomes more heinous simply because larger numbers are involved. Any murder is a terrible tragedy for the victim, for their family and for their friends. The fact that it has happened to 270 people instead of one does not make it materially different. On that basis it was quite right that al-Megrahi was treated according to the normal criteria.

The second issue is more complex. Many political issues may come into play. I take the view that any "political" element to the decision should be based on the classical practice of looking at what is in Britain's interests at this particular time and in these particular circumstances. Much will then depend on what one's view is of Britain's interests. One view weighs large for me. It is that, at this time it might be in Britain's interests to demonstrate to the world in general, to our own people, and to many in the Middle East, that we do things properly. Even when people blow planes out of the skies over our territory, we will not be pushed away from a path of consistent and civilised behaviour. We may change minds. Even if we don't, it was the right thing to do. I have no idea if political considerations came into play here, and if they did, I have no idea if this particular principle was among them. If it was, we have demonstrated again that our system is better than the criminals and others who seek to subvert it, and I am proud of that fact.


Ewan the liberal beardy said...

Great post. I have to say it is a proud day for me and I'm very happy neither David Cameron or Iain Gray had power to influence the decision when it needed to be made. I am an atheist, but I'm happy to live in a country where truly Christian values are maintained under great pressure (This is not to say other religions do not share these values). The vengeance desired by the Americans and the politicians mentioned above betrays their unsuitability for positions of moral leadership.

Joe Otten said...

What a thing to say. Of course the numbers make the crime more heinous. Or are you saying that the second person killed matters less than the first?

(FWIW I think he is probably innocent of the crime and should be released for that reason.)

Rob said...

Joe, first of all, apologies for the delay in publishing. I forgot I had comment moderation turned on after some unwelcome attention.

Of course I'm not saying the second is less value than the first. I'm saying that the second is of exactly the same value as the first. And the third and the fourth, and so on. Try putting your argument the other way round. If we reserve maximum punishment for bigger numbers, the logic is that the murderer of one single person should receive a sentence 270 times less severe than that of the Lockerbie bomber, in other words, 1/270 of a life sentence, or approximately two or three months. I know that stating it like that is absurd, but that's my point. Magistrates who sentence people for drink driving killing seem to believe that, but it's not a line of argument that I want to go along with.

Joe Otten said...

Rob, I'm aware that the limited human lifespan renders the idea of 270 consecutive life sentences somewhat symbolic.

But that is no reason to argue that all crimes within life sentence territory are of the same gravity.

Rob said...

I agree - there is a different gravity according to circumstances. I'm only arguing that numbers per se don't make a difference.