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August 20, 2009

Compassionate release for Lockerbie bomber spotlights different visions of justice

As detailed in this New York Times article, headlined "Scotland Lets Lockerbie Bomber Return to Libya," a very high-profile terrorist is being shown compassion by Scotland:

The Scottish government announced Thursday that it was freeing the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, permitting Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a 57-year-old former Libyan intelligence agent, to return home on compassionate grounds after serving 8 years of a 27-year minimum sentence on charges of murdering 270 people in Britain’s worst terrorist episode.

The decision to release him early on compassionate grounds was made against strenuous American opposition after Mr. Megrahi’s lawyers said he had little time left to live because he is suffering from terminal prostate cancer.  The announcement at a news conference by Scotland’s Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, came almost 21 years after a bomb smuggled onto Pan Am Flight 103 exploded at 31,000 feet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

Of the dead, 189 were Americans.  The Scottish decision was certain to provoke anguished protest from American families of the victims who had demanded that he serve his full sentence.  It was his decision, and his alone, Mr. MacAskill said, that Mr. Megrahi “be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.” “I have followed due process,” he said.

The White House said in a news release that it “deeply regrets” the Scottish decision. “We continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland.”

Mr. MacAskill acknowledged that Mr. Megrahi “did not show his victims any comfort or compassion” and that they were not allowed to go home to their families. “No compassion was shown by him to them,” he said. “But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him.”...

He said Scottish law provided for release on compassionate grounds of prisoners with terminal illnesses whose life expectancy was less than three months. After receiving medical reports from prison doctors and others, he said it was clear that “he has a terminal illness and recently there has been a significant deterioration in his health.” “The three-month prognosis is a reasonable estimate. He may die sooner. He may live longer,” he said.

While he acknowledged that “the pain and suffering will remain forever” for the families of the victims, “our belief dictates that justice be served and mercy be shown.” Mr. MacAskill said Mr. Megrahi could be leaving within an hour from Scotland’s Greenock prison, and transferred to Glasgow airport to be flown home.  “I am conscious there are deeply held feelings and that many will disagree whatever my decision,” Mr. MacAskill said. “However, a decision has to be made.”...

Scottish authorities were braced for a hostile reaction from the Obama administration, which has vigorously opposed Mr. Megrahi’s release.  On Wednesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said it would be “absolutely wrong” to release Mr. Megrahi.

Though federal law has a statutory provision for compassionate release in 18 USC § 3582(c), the application of this statute has been notoriously stingy (as recently detailed by Mary Prince in this recent Federal Sentencingt Reporter article).  As detailed in this ABA document, the US Sentencing Commission a few years ago issued new guidelines concerning the implementation of federal compassionate release rules.  But the reactions of the White House and the Secretary of State to Scotland's decision in this high-profile case spotlights that the concept of compassionate release is still not seriously embraced in the United States.

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August 20, 2009 at 10:21 AM | Permalink


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A major problem with the Bureau of Prisons' procedures (found in the C.F.R.) for "Compassionate Release" is that so many levels of review and approval are required that most applicants (who are terminally ill) die in prison before all can be completed! Such Applications must be approved by the Warden, the Regional Director, the Director of the B.O.P. in Washington, D.C. and his medical advisors. This process typically takes 6 months or more.
When I was an inmate in 2005 at U.S. Penitentiary-1, Coleman, Florida, this delay happened to the longest serving inmate in the entire B.O.P. He had been in prison since June 1964 (except for 13 days of parole in 1993, during which he robbed 2 banks and was returned to prison), and died in September 2005, 3 weeks after I wrote his Application for Compassionate Release. His original crime was "kidnapping resulting in death", for which he received a life sentence (paroleable, under the old, old law). He was terminally ill with cancer and restricted to a wheel chair. His cancer had metasticized throughout his body. He was illiterate, so the Warden told him to find someoone to help him prepare the Application, and he would approve it. The Warden forwarded the approved Application to the B.O.P. Regional Office in Atlanta, where it lay at the time of his death 3 weeks later. His cellmate found him dead in his bed when he woke up in the morning. The prison was locked down after breakfast, so that the local coroner (ironically, a Florida state employee) could investigate and the B.O.P. could remove his body thru the back hallway, without other inamtes seeing it. Because 2/3 of inmates in a penitentiary have life sentences (without parole), they tend to get angry when they see the bodies of other inmates who have died! And the B.O.P. places the body in a belly chain and handcuffs in the body bag, until an autopsy is conducted, just in case the inmate isn't really dead! In the case I was involved with, the B.O.P. paid for the transport of the body to the decedent's family in tennessee, although they are not required by law to do so. As the average age of inmates rises due to longer sentences, the B.O.P. (and Congress) should revamp the procedures for Compassionate Release from Federal Prison.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Aug 20, 2009 11:15:14 AM

I am sorry, but how is being sick grounds for getting out of prison early.
If you commited a serious crime, like bombing a plane filled with people killing everyong, you should die in prison. Letting someone out early just because he is dying does not make sense.
If the original crime was minor, okay that makes sense. But letting killers, terrorists, and other violent offenders out just because they are dying does not make sense.

Posted by: jim | Aug 20, 2009 11:53:49 AM

Subjecting anyone, including a mass murderer, to British cancer care probably violates basic human rights.

The Scots used to be brave, lovers of freedom. Now, they are craven terrorist lovers, and left wing PC extremists. It might be all the illegal drugs they use. This Justice Minister had to have been high when making this decision. This release would have never happened to a lesser criminal from a Christian country. The Justice Minister should be immediately removed as a Moslem terrorist collaborator. He should be investigated for a payoff.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 20, 2009 1:14:37 PM

The major counterpoint to Scotland's "compassionate release" of the Lockerbie bomber (who may have 3 months to live, with prostate cancer) is Susan Atkins. She was follower of Charles Manson who participated in the notoriious Tate/La Bianca murders. She has been denied compassionate release from a California prison, despite having terminal brain cancer and having had a leg amputated.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Aug 20, 2009 2:01:05 PM

It sounds to me like this guy is a perfect candidate to become a suicide bomber...did anyone even think about that?

Posted by: pllott | Aug 20, 2009 2:16:36 PM

What, all we all of a sudden giving out FREE Lunches? Since when??? Under what premise? Did this guy learn his lesson? Who knows, right? Well I guess we’ll have to find out the hard way, maybe???

Posted by: henryyoung | Aug 20, 2009 2:50:27 PM

Such is the USA.

(reminder: Justice is the correct application of law).


Posted by: Dr Nigel Leigh Oldfield | Aug 20, 2009 3:54:47 PM

I was pleased to read both Doug's and Jim's accounts of the law in the US regarding the concept of compassion. Although it seems that it is difficult to achieve, at least the law recognizes that it should have a role in any system of judicial and political review. Compassionate release is not the same as clemency, although sometimes the two terms can both be associated or confused. Doug has said much in the past of the incomprehensible stingy use of clemency, and we have seen some recent death penalty cases where the denial of clemency has beggared belief.
So, I applaud the decision of the Scottish Government to resist the clamor from the US for the export of its uniquely vindictive approach to "justice". Scotland is upholding the principles of its own laws and of an older and noble(r) system of justice, that recognizes that death is different, and that in a Christian world we need to practice in law what we preach as Christians. If we are better than our enemy and those we class as criminal, then we need to behave in a manner that demonstrates we have capacities that set us apart. How else are we to claim moral superiority?

Posted by: peter | Aug 20, 2009 4:16:01 PM

This PC, terrorist lover Justice Minister has no problem offending the memory of the innocent people who died and their surviving families. He has to appease the terrorist Moslem. Why? The left hates our way of life and wants to abet our enemies, despite their being far to the right of us. I would like to see a purge of all internal appeasers from our governments. They are a threat to our physical survival.

The idea that we are better than our enemies is an arrogant, grandiose delusion. We are us, and they are them. They want to kill us. We have to kill them first or buy them off, or persuade them to do otherwise. They are far more pious and God fearing than we are, and more dedicated to their cause. They crave death, in accordance with their culture and religious beliefs. We should accommodate them.

To his credit, our appeaser-in-chief President and his government expressed the anger of the American people at this betrayal. The Justice Minister of Scotland must be forced to resign to send a message to all internal appeasers.

The prisoner voluntarily ended his appeals, because he is guilty. He never expressed any regret, not even a false or half-hearted one. He was not an appeaser, not even in death. He is better than we are, not the other way around.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 20, 2009 6:00:45 PM


So America has a "uniquely vindictive approach to justice." I thought retribution was a key element of sentencing. The Scottish government's decision emasculated retribution and trivialized the loss of more than 250 people.

A horrendous decision. If that is what "moral superiority" looks like--you can claim it.

Posted by: mjs | Aug 20, 2009 7:22:51 PM

Great Article

Posted by: Real Estate NYC | Aug 20, 2009 9:15:19 PM

Peter: Opinion.

The CIA snatches him to Disgustingikhistan. Then he gets tortured for days, even after he reveals the truth about his accomplices, financiers, and government sponsorship. Then, behead him, and feed the body to pigs. Repeat with each of the accomplices, financiers, and government sponsors. Put the vid of every minute on Al Jazeera. To deter.

Your thoughts. Appeaser-in-Chief would never allow any harm to come to a Muslim terrorist. So the question is theoretical, a midnight at the dorm hypothetical.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 20, 2009 10:27:45 PM

mjs - have you been asleep over the past decade or two? The criminalization and persecution of America's young, and America's poor, has been the height of folly and an example of crass political interference in the justice system. An impotent Supreme Court has stood by and allowed this in abdication of their role of oversight .. and greedy and ambitious politicians and prosecutors have reveled in the power they have been so foolishly granted. Sentencing is so wildly out of step with the rest of the world as to be an obscene display of contempt for the concept of humanity, and of justice. You may view my words as extreme ... but they are nothing to the vast wastage of human life that is taking place across America.

Posted by: peter | Aug 21, 2009 4:45:42 AM

there are good terrorists and bad terrorists: Luis Posada Carriles is a good one. He blew up a civilian cuban plane killing 100 persons 30 years ago and is living free in Florida. Say nothing to the killing of Chilean General Reneé Schneider
dott. claudio giusti

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Aug 21, 2009 9:20:51 AM

"there are good terrorists and bad terrorists: Luis Posada Carriles is a good one. He blew up a civilian cuban plane killing 100 persons 30 years ago and is living free in Florida. Say nothing to the killing of Chilean General Reneé Schneider
dott. claudio giusti "

You are absolutly right. There is no such thing as a good terrorist. We need to punish all terrorist, like those two you mentioned. This does not change the fact however that the bomber set free by Scotland should still be in jail.
Honestly, the US needs to own up to what we have done and try to make some kind of reparation. We will always be hated, but it might lay the foundation for some kind of justice in the future.

Posted by: jim | Aug 21, 2009 10:35:14 AM

Has Scotland historicly released all teminally ill prisoners, no matter the nature of their crime and sentence? I suspect not!

Posted by: Mike | Aug 21, 2009 5:04:07 PM

Even though he is dying,he should not be trusted and he should still be monitored.

Posted by: Lisa Stone | Aug 21, 2009 11:37:03 PM

Should MacAskill refuse to resign immediately, along with the entire government, boycott all Scottish products. Get your sippin' whiskey from Kentucky, instead.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 22, 2009 10:25:27 AM

"Sentencing is so wildly out of step with the rest of the world as to be an obscene display of contempt for the concept of humanity, and of justice."

What about the 200 million FBI Index felonies prevented by the sentencing decried by the left?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 22, 2009 10:27:34 AM

Seems a boycott of Scotland is self-evident.


I express the mainstream, self-evident, ordinary person view from the real world. It is the lawyers that bash them that are the way out freaks from the Twilight Zone.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 22, 2009 8:03:13 PM

Even the punkass head of the FBI expressed outrage in a formal letter to terrorist MacAskill.


The latter must resign immediately. He should be shunned as a terrorist lover, and appeaser. There should be zero tolerance for lawyer terrorist love or appeasement.

One guess as to the professional training of this traitor, MacAskill.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 22, 2009 9:48:56 PM

Some of the responses here demonstrate the problem that US citizens have. Complete knee-jerk reaction - almost, in my opinion, to the point of irrationalism.

Now I completely understand that the events of 9/11 in particular have - understandably - hardened the view of Americans. But you have to understand that it's not all black and white. I know it's hard, but you please have to try and look beyond the face value of everything you are told, just for a moment.

It is actually Scottish law that provision is made for release. If Scotland had "appeased" the US and denied Al Megrahi's release, how would the SJS then have justified this in the context of its releasing other convicted criminals on grounds of compassion? Arguably this would have hardened the hatred towards the West with the possibility of causing further terrorist attacks, no? To say MacAskill is a terrorist lover is extremely ignorant and insulting. Is Bill Clinton a terrorist lover because some Americans got money through to the IRA under his watch? Is Roger Noriega a terrorist lover?

And a couple of other bits to ponder: the SNP is actually centre-right on the traditional political scale. As part of his release, Al Magrahi had to waiver his right to appeal

Posted by: Sven | Aug 23, 2009 4:46:59 AM

I know it's hard, but you please have to try and look beyond the face value of everything you are told, just for a moment.

Appeasement and PC misleads the terrorists into thinking we are weak willed. It induces terror attacks, as it has in Britain, but not in the less appeasing US. Britain appeased the Irish (instead of killing all their leadership and financiers). Britain appeases the Muslims, today. It suffers the consequences in the form of frequent terror attacks. These damage the economy.

The US is itself too appeasing now, and terror attacks will visit this land under Appeaser-in-Chief Obama. If they do, he will be impeached. That is the only certainty that keeps him from his all out kowtowing to the Muslim world, to which he may belong by birthright from his father.

Terror attacks result in retaliation. So zero tolerance for appeasement enhances the safety of the Muslim world. It is for their own good.

One notes, the decision of MacAskill is beyond the pale of even the appeasement minded administration of the President. That is why he will not be in his job after a few face saving weeks or days have passed. Britain and Europe love big government. Criminals generate massive government make work. That is why the criminal is sacrosanct in Europe. The consequence? From the Home Office:


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 23, 2009 10:16:32 AM

In no uncertain terms, Americans love Scotland, just about everything about it, including its spirit of defiance. Americans find Scotland inspiring and owe it much. No one wishes it any harm or inconvenience, nor any loss of income. The best outcome would be the resignation of the official and acknowledgment he made a mistake.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 23, 2009 12:10:26 PM

Just to correct a couple of misconceptions, the rules which govern compassionate release of prisoners in Scotland, and which give strict criteria to be considered and define the consultation to be conducted, are laid out under Section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 which was enacted by the British Westminster Parliament and not by the Scottish Parliament. That is to say the Scots did not create the rules and cannot be held responsible for their content. At least not solely anyway. So far as I can see, the rules were duly followed in this instance. All material and relevant factors were considered, no irrelevant and non-material factors were taken into account, and due procedure was followed. The consultation included taking the view of the Scottish supreme court judges, representatives of the victims in both the USA and the rest of the world, and, as I understand it, Hillary Clinton too was consulted. Megrahi is said to have less than three months of life left much of which will be of very poor quality. He has surely not won out of this procedure.

Posted by: Duncan Spiers | Aug 24, 2009 2:15:06 PM

The 1993 act is an amendment of existing Scottish law. The alleged compassion principle must be older.
Briggs was released by UK (English) law on compassionate grounds.

But its not the law TO release - the law provided for the opportunity to release.

Posted by: TrevorH | Aug 24, 2009 6:46:28 PM

Not too surprised at some of the comments from the public on here, I'm a Scot, based in Scotland and one who is for once proud that a politician not only upheld due process, didn't bend under pressure, but actually held up to the principles built in to the system. Yes, justice was done, of course it was and due process followed. If we fail to adhere to those principles in the system, we create a two-tier process and in Megrahi's case, who, incidentally, appears to see his condition worsening, we create a political prisoner if we refuse his release.

Would "justice" be served if he dies in jail, many years before his release time? Or would the US commentators here and in your media rather see his body hung outside the White House so you could throw rocks at it? Would that sate the need for "justice"?

Where does the justice lie for those families who don't share the majority views expressed here and who expressed concern at keeping Megrahi inside longer? I've yet to hear any satisfactory answers to that question. Further, what of a full independent inquiry as to the perpetrators of the original act? Some believe and it is no great stretch of the imagination that Iran was involved for the downing the previous year of an Iranian civil airliner by a USS warship. We would all the like the law to do as we would have it done in our view sometimes, but that's not what the law is for.

This doesn't make us a soft-touch, rather, it shows our procedures are robust, applicable and legitimate in all cases. There are some comments, including on here, which don't talk about justice even though they use the word. They're really talking about vengeance and that, in my view, has no place not only in the Scottish legal process, but in any that of any country. Kenny MacAskill did the right thing not to bow to US pressure and he did the right thing to release Megrahi. What you absolutely will not get out of this affair is an answer to who really did commit this act. The benefits to both middle eastern and western nations, and this includes the US, outweighs the needs to find out the truth. That is the real tragedy of this case.

Posted by: George | Sep 3, 2009 8:01:04 AM

wow this is incredible and frustrating.
that man killed like at least 270 persons and he just serve 8 years of a 27-year sentence!!!
is incredible

Posted by: Miami Office Space | May 1, 2011 7:50:24 PM

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