Months after the initial furor, the outrage over the early release of the man convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 emerged again this week. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was allowed home to Libya during the summer by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds because the cancer-stricken convict had only three months to live. On November 20, that three-month period passed with Megrahi still alive, leading many of the 270 victims’ relatives, mostly Americans, to question the authenticity of the medical advice the Scots used when releasing the prisoner. Closer inspection of the decision would appear to legitimize the families’ anger.

The medical advice that the Scottish government consulted in order to make their controversial decision was provided by three doctors: two British and one Libyan. All three men were paid by the Libyan government and one of the British doctors has since commented that the three-month period was actually suggested by the Libyan government. Independent doctors had earlier calculated that Megrahi had more than a year to live, leaving him ineligible for release on compassionate grounds. To put their decision into perspective,  prisoner release on compassionate grounds has been used only seven times by the Scottish National Party since taking office in May 2007, with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill responsible for all the decisions. Megrahi has already survived longer since his release than any of the other criminals, only one of whom was a convicted murderer.

Releasing Megrahi provoked anger on both sides of the Atlantic, with President Obama calling the move a “mistake”. While many Scots echoed the president’s sentiments, some saw irony in the U.S.’s pontification over prisoner treatment. MacAskill has long claimed that he was motivated purely by medical advice, yet commentators speculate that the move formed part of a trade deal between Libya and the UK. The reality is probably less complex and conspiratorial.

By 2009, it looked increasing likely that Megrahi was to be freed on appeal. In 2007, The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had determined that “a miscarriage of justice may have occurred”. To free him on appeal would have been a massive embarrassment for the Scottish government and would have sparked calls to re-open the investigation, erasing 10 years of police work by U.S. and Scottish authorities. For the Scottish government, it was more expedient to let Megrahi go free and die a short time later in Libya, with the guilty verdict still in tact. As part of this quid pro quo, Megrahi dropped his appeal shortly before his release. Most legal experts agree that Megrahi did have a role in Lockerbie bombing, but the evidence in the case was flimsy at best, and the CIA’s alleged payment of witnesses damaged the case. It is widely recognized that Megrahi was simply the fall guy in a larger affair, used so that Libya could get sanctions lifted and return to the world stage. Yet the Scottish government’s handling of the matter means that many of the questions surrounding the conviction will remain unanswered.

As more details regarding the release emerge, it becomes clear that MacAskill’s motivation was not compassion; it was pure political calculation.  His move has shamed many ordinary Scots who are embarrassed by their small nation’s infamous moment in the international spotlight. Worse still, the decision serves only to prolong the pain and injustice endured by the victims’ families.

Michael Collins, November 2009