Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Liberty to the captive

Incarceration is, to the lover of freedom, the ultimate cruel and unusual punishment. The death penalty is not so strange, because we must all die some time, and it may turn out to be tomorrow. But incarceration in a prison is unnatural, and most of us hope never to experience it. And to be incarcerated for life, even in a gilded cage, is abhorrent. Perhaps this is why there is no mention of incarceration as a punishment in the Old Testament penal code.

And hence I have some sympathy with Mr Kenny Macaskill, the Scottish Justice minister, and indeed with the Scottish Government, who have decided to release Mr. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. Indeed, if one is compassionate, one must have some sympathy with Mr. Megrahi himself.

Mr. Macaskill has come in, however, for a good deal of stick. And I have some sympathy for his critics as well. Releasing someone from a sentence, simply because he is terminally ill, does seem to go contrary to natural justice. Were it standard practice to do so, and if everyone knew, when Mr. Megrahi was sentenced, that he would be released and allowed to go home to Libya if he became terminally ill, then no one could complain. It is the fact that the Scottish Government has released him unexpectedly that is the problem. Predictability is part of the essence of a good legal system. If people cannot predict how prisoners are going to be treated, it is inevitable that they will feel that something unjust is going on. And for that reason, I think that the Scottish Government has made a mistake.

However, it is a pretty small mistake. It may turn out to be expensive for Scotland - though I doubt it. But even if the repercussions are big, the fault is small. It doesn’t matter whether Mr. Megrahi spends his final weeks in Libya or in Scotland. Making him die in a Scottish jail will not bring back any of the people killed in the Lockerbie bombing. This is a storm in a tea-cup, and while it may excite public opinion, it is not much more important than the news stories about rich and famous celebrities that also seem to excite public opinion.

There are thousands of much bigger mistakes that have been made by the British and Scottish governments in recent years which have not attracted anything like the criticism of this decision. The way that Labour, Conservative and LibDem MSPs have lined up to attack the SNP for this smacks of political opportunism.

The truth of the matter is that the real scandal is that tax-payers are paying these MSPs to debate matters of so little importance - and that they are paying Mr. Macaskill to visit Mr. Megrahi in jail. Do politicians have nothing better to do with their time?

Actually, I’m afraid that the answer is probably ‘no’.

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