Monday, August 24, 2009

Not in my name

I haven't listened to the whole proceedings from this afternoon, so I'll need to look at the Official Report tomorrow. That's what happens when Parliament is recalled at school chucking out time. I heard the statement and had to leave fairly early on in the questions. My initial impression is that there was a bit too much political posturing from all sides. I'd hoped for a bit more light than we actually got, although I was impressed that Tavish did ask clear and relevant questions relating to the visit to Al Megrahi, none of which I think were adequately answered.

My view hasn't changed, though - I still believe absolutely that Kenny MacAskill made the right decision, however much he and his department cocked up on its delivery.

According to Gary Gibbon, Channel 4's political editor, in his blog, there's a plot afoot for a "Not in Scotland's Name" style campaign over the 9 days until Parliament debates the matter in full next week.

Let me tell you what I don't want done in my name:

Slagging Kenny MacAskill and the SNP for the outrageous scenes in Libya which greeted Megrahi's return. It was obvious that it would happen, despite, as MacAskill said, requests to the Libyans for them to behave with a bit of restraint, but you don't base a decision on an application for compassionate release on the expected actions of a foreign government. You would think from what was said in Parliament that he'd sent John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon to take the saltires to Tripoli themselves. Just stop it, please.

Suggesting that it might have been appropriate to send Megrahi to a hospice. How stupid an idea is that? What planet is Annabel Goldie on? Does she actually understand what the hospice movement tries to do? For a start, he wouldn't have spent all the time till he died there. Most people don't - they may have short visits, or day visits to get pain under control, but they tend not to be admitted full time until a few days before they die. And who would have been shouting loudly if Megrahi had been sent to a hospice, sending the establishment into complete turmoil for all the patients inside it? That would have worked for nobody and I can't believe they put it forward as an idea.

In a similar vein, the Tories would have been foaming at the mouth if 48 Police officers had been taken off the beat to look after Megrahi for 3 months. Can you imagine? David McLetchie should know the difference between policing a football match on a Saturday afternoon and providing round the clock protection/security for an indefinite period.

Annabel Goldie ought to be ashamed of herself for the performance of her team today. I wonder if this will mean an end to the virtual coalition they've enjoyed with the SNP for these past two years. We shall see.

What I do think needs to happen, and it would be better if Kenny MacAskill was more open about it, and didn't have to have the information dragged out of him, is for us to be told exactly what happened at that meeting in Greenock jail. I don't really get the whole business of Megrahi making his representations in person when he had his lawyer present. What I really want is a pretty much verbatim account of that meeting, which there should be. If there isn't, why on earth not? Nothing that was said today convinces me that MacAskill was obliged to have this meeting, but seeing as he did, he needs to tell us more about it.

For what it's worth, Yousuf has reported, and he admits himself it's only one poll, that only a tiny minority of people approve of his release on compassionate grounds. Jeff quotes another poll which says that 35% approve and 53% disapprove and gives more analysis on the split by each party's voters. In real life, I've found that the people I've come into contact with, and my husband feels the same, are split half and half. There's certainly not enough disapproval to warrant Iain Gray inferring that there's widespread opposition. What's more, even when people have been quite angry about it, I've found that they have been quite open to persuasion, to the idea that if we have a policy to release terminally ill prisoners, why shouldn't it apply to Megrahi?

On balance, I'm not convinced that this afternoon's early recall of Parliament was worth it. We had little new information and more heat than light. Let's hope that next week's debate has more quality about it. Let's hope we have more contributions like those of Malcolm Chisholm, Labour MSP for North and Leith, who very thoughtfully expressed his support for the compassionate release of Megrahi. I think he was the man of the match for me.


Anonymous said...

"...Can I regret the politicisation of what is a quasi-judicial decision, and for my part commend the justice secretary for a courageous decision, which is entirely consistent with both the principles of Scots law and Christian morality, as evidenced by the widespread support of churches across Scotland...."

Malcolm Chisholm
Labour MSP

The only opposition politician with a shread of courage, this was a dark day for unionism caron. The seething hatred of the opposition parties over this paints a very ugly vision of how they Scotland in the world.

Norman said...

I agree with this post and I was not impressed by what I just saw of the debate on Newsnight. Gray and particularly Goldie were talking vacuous twaddle. Jeremy Purvis succeeded in merely making a fool of himself.

McAskill made his decision correctly, responsibly and the decision itself was not unreasonable. That is the end of it. The decision was never one for Parliament to make and the opposition parties were only making mischief.

Personally I have not met anyone who disagrees with the decision, although I make no claims that that demonsrates a consensus.

GavinS said...

Who would believe, reading the above comment and what Caron wrote, that it's the opposition parties who are being accused of making this party political?

Who would believe that our Justice Minister could try to claim the moral high ground over this while offering in his defence the pathetic observation that Jim Wallace extended compassionate release to "a child killer".

Clearly he didn't prepare any party political points, and just happened to have that helpful and comprehensive summary of an historic case to hand.

There is a serious and important debate to be had about this, but there was precious little sign that the SNP are keen to have it.

It is, for the most part, a theoretical debate about what justice requires, and what compassion requires - but that is a debate we should be willing to have.

If evidence comes to light that MacAskill or his officials prompted the appeal to be withdrawn, his position is untenable. It's right that opposition parties should look quite hard for evidence given the apparent sequence of events, but that doesn't mean they will find any. It's predictable that the SNP will continue to act throughout as though all of this is an outrage against the national religion.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Lib Demmers seem to be saying that MacAskill visiting Megrahi makes the decision/process political rather than quasi-judicial.

But none of you explain why the Justice Secretary visiting the subject of a Prisoner Transfer Request is, in fact, political.

The logical extension of this argument is that he shouldn't speak directly to anybody about anything.

Frankly, it is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Well they made the correct decision in mine.

Keith Legg said...

Anonymous - the meeting is relevant because, for a truly judicial decision, the appointment needs to be independent. The vast majority - if not all - of these decisions are taken based on the paperwork presented to the Minister and not a face-to-face meeting. Doing this took away the "facelessness" of the approach and could well have influenced MacAskill's thinking rather than simply basing the decision on the evidence before him.

Caron's right about the split in the public - it's not as clear cut as it seems. We had a debate yesterday at work and it was about 50:50 with those supporting the decision saying that if that's what the law says, then the minister should follow it - if we don't like the law, change it. It even mirrors the split in my house!

Personally, I think that they could have considered house arrest - I'd have accepted the 48 police officers as part of that, particularly if the Scottish Government could have negotiated the additional cost either with London or Washington. I also think that if MacAskill really thought that the Libyans would have kept their promise on Magrahi's homecoming then he was at best extremely naive.

However, although there are many, many other reasons why we can criticise MacAskill - and many, many other reasons why he should resign anyway - I don't think this is one of them. I'm disappointed that our party hasn't chosen to suppor MacAskill on this - though I can understand why Jim Hume doesn't - and hope we can get to the truth behind the decision.

Unknown said...

A very good post. I am very disappointed at the reaction of the Liberal Democrat MSPs. They all seem to have forgotten the word Liberal in their party's name. It is good to see at least some Liberal Democrats still prepared to stand for principle.

Anonymous said...


MacAskill met with UK families personally, Spanish families personally and talked to US familes paersonally.

Natural Junstice surely dictates that all representations must be handled the same way.

Are you really saying it was not appropriate for MacAskill to hear any of those representation in person?

Do you believe that judges and juries should not hear evidence in person because that would somehow lead to a flaw in their decision making?

I believe the fact that MacAskill did meet so openly with Megrahi in person was a deliberate act to make his dealing with him as transparent as possible.

You can be sure if he had relied on officials and reports the same voices sounding off about this would be shouting about a cover up evidenced by the fact that he did not hear representations personally.

JDE said...


It is really regrettable how political this has become.

Compassionate release has been around for Secretarys of State for a while, and indeed the SoS used to have to take the final decision on capital punishment verdicts.

I can't recall any example prior to devolution when the exercise became so politicised - the SoS was left to exercise that judicial capacity.

Okay, this is a bigger story than any previous example, but the test of the system should not be how newsworthy the request for compassionate release is.

I suspect the posituioning by all parties has actually encouraged the ludicrous and hypocritical "boycott" movements by exploiting a sense of political division.

JDE said...

Indy said...

I was astonished by Jeremy Purvis's performance on Newsnight - he was asked would he have let Megrahi die in jail and replied yes! That cannot possibly be a reflection of mainstream Lib Dem opinion.

In my view the public are now pretty fed up of the whole thing.

Whether they agree or disagree with the decision my impression is that most people recognise Kenny MacAskill did his best to reach a fair decision based on the law of the land. The outcome may not be what everyone wanted to see but he did it by the book and according to his conscience. That is all you can ask of anyone.

There may be other issues which need to be explained a bit more fully, such as the visit, but he gave an assurance that he would publish all notes and documents once he had the permission of the individuals involved.

Most people I have been speaking to feel that this is not the kind of issue that should be milked for political reasons. By all means follow up on particular issues if they are of concern but let's have a bit less hype and hysteria about it.

Graeme said...

I count myself as liberal, both in my views and my party. But I absolutely disagree with the decision that Kenny MacAskill took and the process that led him to take that decision.

Let us not forget that Megrahi is a convicted mass murderer. For all the talk of circumstantial evidence and his innocence, a Scottish court did sit in judgement and declare him guilty of murdering 270 people. He is guilty until proven otherwise. If people want a public enquiry or new appeal then fine, I have no issue with that. But until then let's dispense with any talk of the decision being right on those grounds.

The Scottish justice system does allow for compassion. But does no one think that our justice system has already shown compassion in giving Mergahi a 27 year sentence, 5 weeks for each victim of which he served only 11 days. Would a Scottish citizen have received such a sentence in Libya?

Kevin writes that a Liberal justice minister would have made the same decision. Well, Jim Wallace has stated that he does not agree with the decision reached by MacAskill, a view that Nicol Stephen repeated in yesterday’s Parliamentary session.

There is no policy to release terminally ill prisoners. They have the right to application – as Megrahi did. But that application can be turned down. I believe in compassion but to a point - there are moral absolutes.

It is a choice that each of us has to make – I respect that. So let us stop with the argument that some how those who disagree with the decision to release are less liberal, or compassionate than others. That is, frankly, just as insulting as Kenny MacAskill’s view that Megrahi has been judged by a so called “higher power” to anyone with a terminal illness.

Indy said...

Graeme the fact is that no Scottish Justice Minister has ever refused an appplication for compassionate release which met the criteria laid down, as Megrahi's did.

Whether you personally agree with it or not the decision to release him was based in law and on precedent and neither has been challenged by any party.

If people do not agree with the assumptions underlying the process of compassionate release they should argue for them to be changed in all cases, not just one. What you cannot do is argue that the process should be applied differently in different cases on the basis of political considerations,which is what Jeremy Purvis appeared to be suggesting.

That is the kind of argument you would expect from the BNP not the Liberal Democrats.

It is noticeable that no other politician (other than Purvis) has suggested that the compassionate release itself was wrong. What they have suggested is that returning the prisoner to Libya was wrong and have argued that he could be dealt with compassionately in Scotland. For various reasons I think that is impractical but I recognise that it is a valid argument. Jeremy Purvis' argument was not valid, indeed it was not even an argument.

Unknown said...

Graeme, I agree with you that it's not right to suggest that everyone on one side of this argument is liberal and the other side isn't. There are strongly held views on both sides and there needs to be intelligent debate and discussion, not name calling and denigration of your opponents.

I stand by what I've said in all my postings on this. I've written 5 in total now. I do believe that prisoners should be released in the last weeks of their life, unless there is some sort of risk to the public.

It's interesting that you mentioned the supposed leniency of Megrahi's sentence, at 5 weeks for each life. What do you think would have been appropriate?

I think that Millennium has got it spot on with this posting from today -

For a fluffy elephant, he can be very wise sometimes.

Indy, I haven't seen last night's Newsnight, but I take a very different view from the one you say was expressed by Jeremy Purvis. However, not in a million years would I ever think any spokesman in my party or your's or Labour or the Tories was anything like the fascist BNP.

I don't think you're right about JP being the only politician who's said it was wrong to release Megrahi in principle - Iain Gray said he wouldn't have done it and David Cameron also.

GavinS said...

With no pleasure, I agree with Graeme and Jeremy. On balance, I think he should have died in the care of our justice system - with the best possible medical care and with his family allowed as much access as they wish.

There is a popular misapprehension that MacAskill was 'following the law'. It's important to be clear that he was not required to do anything apart from consider the application.

I do not know how long compassionate release has been allowed by statute (I guess a very long time, and in very many countries), but I suspect the claim that every single request EVER has been granted 'if it fulfills the criteria' is bogus. It may well be true since devolution - but I don't know if or where the information is published, or what the criteria referred to actually say. In any event, the process envisaged by this account is not about compassion in any recognisable sense - it's just a formula for letting dying people out of jail. The 'criteria laid down' (whatever they say) are quite clearly a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Minister to agree to release.

The use of compassionate release is a question of judgement by the Minister. I'd be happy to discuss specific other cases if it helps, but acting like there was no judgement to make in this case is playing fast and loose with the facts. I don't think MacAskill himself has generally tried to do this.

You don't have to think very hard to come up with counterfactuals where it is very troubling to suggest our Government should exercise its compassion on behalf of us all.

If a mass murderer is plainly guilty, plainly incapacitated by terminal illness, but has spent their sentence denying their guilt, showing no remorse and refusing to tell their victims families where remains have been dumped, should we show them compassion and release them to enjoy their final months as best they can?

If someone evades justice for many years, and is only convicted once already terminally ill, should we spare them a sentence altogether?

As a victim of a heinous crime, would we be happy for a hand-wringing politician to come along and say he's sorry about what's happened but wouldn't it help if we all sang kumbaya and then went off home and made the best of it?

As Liberals, it's really important that we aren't just soft-headed about this. The elephant's right that justice is hard to achieve, but he's wrong to say that people urging some sense of proportion in sentencing are just demanding vengeance. Lynch mobs and amateur torturers do vengeance...and we can't just abandon justice unilaterally because it's hard to achieve perfectly, and balance them up by being limitlessly kind to the perpetrators of monumental crimes. Justice is a liberal democracy's way to stop the lynch mob, and the cycle of violence which unresolved injustice generates.

It's not my main reason here, but the suggestion that there is a universal right to compassion in the final months of life would be a great recruiter if there was a renewed campaign to restore Capital Punishment in the UK.

Indy is just wrong about this - although I appreciate she's keen to slag off the Lib Dems and this is as good an opportunity as any. Compassion is always all about each individual case, and this is a very individual case in very many ways.

The fact that the convicted man has not admitted his guilt, but plausibly may not be guilty, is at the heart of the dilemma. The scale of the crime weighs on the other side.

On balance, I think truth (for Al Megrahi's sake and for the sake of others) should have come before the particular version of compassion which he received.

The churches' points are far from irrelevant, but there are important reasons why ministers of religion may work within prisons, but do not run them.

MacAskill's 'higher power' thing gives me the creeps. I don't think we should turn over criminal justice to St Peter. We might find ourselves abdicating many other things besides.


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