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Leading article: A merciful release

Sunday 23 August 2009 00:00 BST

There seem to be two diametrically opposite views of the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. One, the predominant view, is that Megrahi is guilty of such a horrendous crime that he should die in jail.

The other is that his conviction in 2001, some 13 years after the explosion on Pan Am flight 103, was unsafe, and that his release on compassionate grounds is the least worst way of bringing one part of an unsatisfactory episode to a conclusion.

It is generally bad practice for a leading article to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Before this newspaper was founded, The Guardian was much mocked for the tendency of its editorials to use the formula, "on the one hand, and on the other". But needs must.

As it happens, this newspaper is temperamentally inclined to the second, less popular, opinion. There was something not quite right about the case against Megrahi, brought under Scottish law in a Dutch court after a complex series of international deals persuaded the Libyan regime to surrender two suspects. We acknowledge, on the one hand, the view of those such as the liberal barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who are convinced of Megrahi's guilt. On the other hand, many of those with an informed interest in the case, including Jim Swire, the father of one who died in the bombing, are equally convinced of his innocence. At the very least, there were reasonable grounds for Megrahi's further appeals against his conviction.

Those legal actions could have taken their course had it not been for Megrahi's being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. At that point, in our view, the question changed. Inevitably, given the conspiracy theories that have swirled about this case from the start, it has been assumed in some quarters that his release is part of a deal to allow British companies to get their hands on Libyan oil, or to conceal the identity of the true authors of the Lockerbie atrocity. Some have even doubted Megrahi's diagnosis.

So the question then became whether it was right that someone, guilty in the eyes of the law, should be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to die at home. In this, questions of Megrahi's guilt or innocence ought to become irrelevant. The fact is that we do not know whether he did it or not. Pending due legal process, he should be treated as if he did.

Megrahi may well be innocent, then, but the critical point is that, even if he is not, it was right that he should be released when doctors gave him three months to live. In this we find ourselves on the side of Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, who took the decision.

When the question is posed in this form, all the conspiracy theories, summarised by David Randall on pages 8 and 9, become irrelevant. In general, this newspaper is sceptical about the idea that secret deals have been done, by Tony Blair or anyone else. The idea that the Scottish National Party in Edinburgh and the Labour government in Westminster should collude over an issue as sensitive as this lacks a basic plausibility. But again, we simply do not know. All that can be said with some certainty is that it would be wise, from both the Scottish and the British point of view, for our countries' businesses to be seen to profit from the decision.

Equally, the party politics around the issue should be ignored. Gordon Brown's silence on the question is unedifying, to be sure. He transparently hopes that the SNP will lose votes by taking an unpopular decision. But David Cameron's opportunistic demand that Mr Brown "clarify his views" on Megrahi's release is just as tawdry.

Nor should it affect the issue that Megrahi received a hero's welcome in Tripoli, even though everyone should agree with Barack Obama that this was "highly objectionable". (And we might note, in passing, Mr Brown's naivety in thinking that writing a letter to Colonel Gaddafi asking him to avoid a "high-profile return" of Megrahi to Libya would suffice.)

All we need to decide is whether a dying man, even if he is guilty of a terrible crime, should be shown compassion. We were impressed by Mr MacAskill's words when he announced his decision. "Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power," he said. "The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live." We agree that "our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown".

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