I'm ashamed to be British

The release of Al-Megrahi makes a mockery of our penal system


This has not been the best of months for the standing and reputation of the British judicial system. On Thursday 6 August, the UK justice secretary, Jack Straw, announced that he had decided to release from prison, on compassionate grounds, one Ronald Biggs. Exactly two weeks later the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, announced that he had decided to release from prison, on identical grounds, Mr Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi.

Everybody who reads this column knows that Al-Megrahi is the person — the only person ever — convicted in connection with the blowing-up, over Lockerbie, in Scotland in 1988, of an American passenger aircraft. This atrocity resulted in the murder of some 270 people, both in the air and on the ground.

But not everyone reading this column — I am thinking especially of Americans whom I am privileged to number amongst my readers — will know anything about Ronnie Biggs. So I need to explain that in 1963, Biggs proudly numbered himself among a gang of thieves who tampered with a railway signalling system — thus potentially endangering countless lives — in order to stop the Glasgow-London mail train, which they then hijacked, beating the locomotive driver (Jack Mills) so brutally that he never worked again. Biggs was caught and sentenced to 30 years behind bars. But in 1965 he managed to escape, and eventually surfaced in Brazil, where he lived the good life, cocking very public snooks at the British judicial system. Then, when his money had run out, he returned to the UK and, of course, to prison. Now 80, he is said to be in very poor health. In July, justice secretary Jack Straw rejected a recommendation that he be paroled on medical grounds. Four weeks later Mr Straw — the Man of Straw — changed his mind. Biggs is now in a private nursing home, a free man living on a state pension of around £95 [say $150] a week, his board and lodging paid for by the taxpayer.

The grounds upon which Mr Straw released Biggs were those of compassion. The expression of remorse is — so we are told — essential if a prisoner is to be paroled. Biggs has expressed no regret whatsoever for his part in the Great Train Robbery. Medical reports indicated, however, that as a bedridden old man, Biggs was unlikely to live very long. So, in an act of utterly misplaced sentimentality, Mr Straw released him.

Let us now return to Al-Megrahi. I am well aware of the fierce controversy that surrounds the events that took place over Lockerbie. I am well aware that there are many — including some of the relatives of the victims — who do not accept that Libya or Libyans were behind the bombing. Be all that as it may, Al-Megrahi was found guilty (a co-defendant was acquitted) by a Scottish court. I am well aware that Al-Megrahi had appealed against his conviction, as was his right. This appeal could have been heard — indeed I, along with many others, am sorry that it wasn’t.

But Kenny MacAskill made it abundantly clear — in a smug, unctuous speech to which I personally found it painful to listen — that he regarded Al-Megrahi as guilty and that, indeed, Al-Megrahi was going to leave Scotland a guilty man. Why, then, was he being released? Because, Mr MacAskill opined, “our justice system demands that judgment be imposed, but compassion be available… it is my decision that … 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.”

This is pure, unadulterated, humbug.

Criminals are sent to prison as a punishment. That punishment involves — indeed is designed to involve — loss of liberty and of the creature comforts that liberty can bring. Among these creature comforts is the comfort of dying in one’s own home, or in a hospital or hospice surrounded by friends and relatives rather than prison wardens. Ronnie Biggs and Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi could both have received such medical treatment as was necessary whilst remaining in prison. There were no “compassionate” grounds for their release, and the fact that they are both now free makes me ashamed to be British.

    Last updated: 1:10pm, August 27 2009