It's not often that Hernandez dips his fingers into the bowl of world politics, but the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds today merits consideration. The move has caused widespread anger, most notably in the US with President Obama describing it as a "mistake". On the face of it their anger is perhaps understandable. Megrahi was convicted in 2001 for the murder of 270 people of which 189 were American. He was sentenced to 27 years yet has served just 8, having lost an appeal in 2002. Aside from the arguments for his release, the Scottish Government's handling of the affair has been utterly shambolic. Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill's bizarre decision to visit Megrahi in Greenock prison earlier this month has fuelled specualtion of a deal preserving diplomatic relations with Libya. And today, the SNP have predictably attempted to use the worldwide exposure as a nationalistic points-scoring exercise, clearly a reminder that Scotland now makes its own decisions and is a separate entity from the UK.
The delivery of MacAskill's statement at todays press conference also had a rather odd tone, almost 'sermon' like as noticed by the BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor. It is reasonable to assume that the tone was for the benefit of the US audience, particularly the reference to a "higher authority". Apart from airy references to Scottish morals, values and beliefs, the statement lacked any real justification or reasoning, perhaps a hint that there were in fact diplomatic motives behind the release. Despite MacAskill's assurances, it seems unlikely that his release was motivated purely by 'compassion' or 'mercy'. Can we assume that from now on any prisoner with a terminal illness will be released and allowed to return to his family?
There is growing suspicion (in Scotland at least) that Megrahi's original trial may have been flawed and that his conviction may be unsafe. Many believe, including some of the families themselves, that Megrahi has been made a convenient scapegoat. Tam Dalyell, the former father of the House of Commons, has persistently argued Megrahi's innocence, saying that:
"Mr McAskill has arrived at the right decision on compassionate grounds. I do not accept his endorsement of the guilt of Mr Megrahi, whom I continue to believe had nothing whatsoever to do with the crime of Lockerbie".
Tellingly, back in 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission recommended that Megrahi be granted a second appeal, suggesting that the full facts did not come out through the original trial. It does seem unlikely that Megrahi could have acted alone and organised the bombing without significant support, if indeed he was involved at all.
Whether he was responsible for the atrocity or not, Megrahi has only months to live. It appears that he has sacrificed any chance of clearing his name in order to spend his remaining time with his family. For the sake of the Scottish legal system, it is essential that a full public inquiry is held into the case. Otherwise the real tragedy will be that the victims families will be denied closure, as reflected in the words of Jim Swire who lost his daughter Flora in the bombing:
""I think for those of us who have looked carefully at the evidence and have doubts, we cannot achieve that until we're quite sure that it really is true and it could be proved that it were true that he was the one that did it. It's no good trying to have closure on false foundations"