Scotland's Identity Crisis

On Monday afternoon, Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, member of The Scottish National Party, faced the members of the hastily assembled Scottish Parliament. The Parliament had been on holiday and was not due back for another week. But while they were away, MacKaskill gave a compassionate release to convicted Pam Am Flight 103 bomber — the former high level Libyan intelligence officer — Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi.  A furor immediately ensued, so this extraordinary session was called.

For someone described as being in the fight of his political life, MacAskill seemed tense, but ramrod straight. Under the polite barrage of questions, he repeatedly insisted that he had made his decision alone and stood by it without reservation or regret. There was, he insisted, no instruction, nor any input whatsoever, from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who — coincidently — happened to be vacationing in his native Scotland as this story unfolded. No cellular service in the Highlands, one presumes.

For keeping his own counsel all last week, Brown was quickly dubbed “the invisible man of British politics,” and was ridiculed as a coward.  Until he turned up for work Tuesday to host Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Brown remained mum on the topic of Al Megrahi’s release.  This silence was in sharp contrast to his concern for U.K. Idol contestant and web wonder Susan Boyle, his condolences to the family of Michael Jackson, and his high fives to the British Cricket team after they triumphed over the Aussies on Sunday. When Brown finally found his voice, all he managed to say was that he was appalled by the hero’s welcome Al Megrahi had received when he stepped off the private plane which his distant cousin, long time Libyan overlord Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, had sent to bring the suffering Abdelbaset home.

For those who count, when Al Megrahi was let go last week — in time for the Islamic holiday of Ramadan — he had served only two weeks for each of the 270 dead from the plane and on the ground in Lockerbie. The question of why Al Megrahi was never extradited to the U.S. — to face charges on an outstanding warrant for terrorism — has always been debated.Hillary Clinton said a few words of protest, as did her boss before he left for vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.  In the end, they might as well have also remained mute. Much is made over the fact that had Pam Am 103 blown up a little before or after it passed over Lockerbie, none of this would have been Scotland’s problem at all. But history sometimes takes odd turns, and now a terrorist has come to play a role in the movement toward Scottish independence, while simultaneously raising questions about dirty dealings in certain political circles (about which more later).

Megrahi’s appeal of his life sentence had long ago been rejected in Scotland, but things began to change when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which has (purportedly) spread and become terminal.  This gave Libya leave to request Al Megrahi be allowed to return home to die, a petition based on the policy of compassionate release for terminally ill convicts. Only two weeks ago, the last of the Great British Train Robbers of 1963, Ronnie Biggs, was released from jail. He had escaped British imprisonment for 36 years — living the high life in South America — before returning home on his own. Once back in jail, his health declined rapidly and the Brits sent him back to his family to die. He has yet to do so. U.K .odds makers are now taking wagers on how long Al Megrahi will survive.

During the questioning Monday in Holyrood, Annabel Goldie, leader of the Conservative Party of Scotland, asked why Al Megrahi could not have been moved to a hospice somewhere in Scotland, guarded by the same forces who were deemed capable of providing security for the G-8 at Gleneagles a few years ago. MacAskill replied that those citizens of Scotland who had gone to such places to die in peace did not deserve to become a part of a media circus. Point taken. But the Justice Minister was not able to explain why he personally went to interview Al-Megrahi — in his cell — with only the terrorist’s sister in attendance, before announcing his decision. To the question of releasing any paperwork related to the compassionate release, MacAskill assured this would be done, but kept insisting he had acted alone.

This begs belief on one major front. It was only late last year when the “Treaty Between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters” was penned. The final document, dated May 2009, is available online. It is top heavy with how countries should handle people who embezzle large sums from national treasuries, a nifty agreeable offense among most civilized parties. But Article 14 describes the responsibility of a “requesting party” (in this case Libya) to abide by agreed upon conditions for the released person — to wit one Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi.  And the cover summary memorandum was signed by (you can’t make this up) Lord West of Spithead, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the British Home Office.

Now like the finally talking British PM, Justice Minister MacAskill had previously indicated that (1) it was his understanding that Al Megrahi would be placed under a form of house arrest upon his return to his native country and (2)  his reception in Libya would be a low-key affair.  The Libyans apparently failed to comply with both agreed terms.Who would have anticipated that one, eh? In fact, Al Megrahi will be the guest of honor next week at the 40th anniversary celebration for Cousin Gaddafi’s dictatorial reign in The Great Socialist People’s Jamahiriya.

Now’s the time to dig a little deeper. The controversy surrounding MacAskill’s decision is multi-layered. It is enhanced by the political reality that the Scottish National Party is a minority party and — though some members are now distancing themselves from this public relations disaster — others embrace it.  Some ask: Why did Scotland so easily give up this bargaining chip when there are on-going negotiations for compensation for individuals killed by the IRA. The connection? The IRA bought Semtec explosive supplies from Libya.

Again, MacAskill reminded his critics that Scotland operates under its own rules of justice and is independent of the British Parliament (or believes itself to be). He also remarked that Scotland does not share views on imprisonment with Britain and America which are seen as interchangeable harsh ideologies. Scotland prefers the penal model as practiced by Scandinavia. Thus, Al-Megrahi’s release has been spun as proof that the Scottish independence movement is serious in staking out a separate identity for the country.

Still, the questions about dealings between Britain and Libya continue to swirl around like desert sand storms.  Was this really a deal for Libyan oil?  Did MacAskill fall on (if not his sword then) his pen-knife in the name of Scottish independence?  Was this compassionate release long ago agreed upon in a tent in Tripoli when Tony met Muammar?

That will be explained and explored in Part Two.