Great Britain is on the defensive as criticism intensifies over the release from prison of the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people. British newspapers have been rife with speculation that the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who is said to be suffering from terminal prostate cancer, was motivated by lucrative Libyan oil deals and even anti-Americanism rather than compassion for a dying man, as was originally claimed.
Megrahi, who had served only eight years of a life sentence, was released from a Scottish prison on humanitarian grounds on August 20. He returned home on a private jet to an officially orchestrated hero’s welcome in Libya.
Megrahi’s release has been widely condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, condemned the release as “wrong” and the product of “completely nonsensical thinking.” In the United States, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the scenes of jubilation in the Libyan capital of Tripoli as “outrageous” and “disgusting.” And the families of the victims are understandably dismayed.
The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, said his decision to release the mass murderer was prompted by “humanity.” Speaking at a packed press conference in Edinburgh, MacAskill said, “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic.”
But MacAskill’s critics are not buying the claim that MacAskill was acting alone, especially after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi praised British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as “my friend” and thanked the British government and even Queen Elizabeth for their part in securing Megrahi’s freedom.
The London-based center-right Daily Telegraph said MacAskill’s decision was more about asserting Scottish nationalism than about Scottish altruism. “But you only had to listen to MacAskill to understand the perspective from which he was operating, and it owed little to either the rights of the victims or the finer points of Scots law. He seemed to regard each question as a challenge to maximise use of the word ‘Scottish’ in the answers. Scottish values, Scottish justice, Scottish compassion, Scottish way of doing things. … To which he might have added Scottish naivety, Scottish shame.”