Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Should there be no room for compassion in some cases?

The Prime Minister is in Washington amidst the political row which has broken out over BP.  Apart from the "Deep Horizon" oil disaster, the Americans are angry with BP in connection with the release of al-Megrahi ("the Lockerbie bomber").  The Guardian 21st July covered Cameron's visit.  Cameron has referred to the release of al-Megrahi as a "mistake".  Of course, al-Megrahi stands convicted of the murder of 270 people (259 on board the aeroplane and 11 on the ground).  He was convicted at a trial held in Holland.  Scots Law applied and he was tried by three judges alone (contrary to the usual Scottish system of a jury of 15 in "solemn proceedings") - see here.  Doubts have lingered over his actual guilt but al-Megrahi abandoned an appeal just prior to his release on compassionate grounds.  The Scottish High Court of Justiciary was in possession of a lengthy investigation into the case by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission - (see their news release about the reference to the court and see the views of Professor Robert Black QC).  It is unclear whether the abandonment of the appeal and his release were connected.  At the time, it was said that he could not be released, even on compassionate grounds, if any legal proceedings remained.  Surely, if the release were truly "compassionate" then there ought not to be any link.  [The questions surrounding the medical assessment of al-Megahi are discussed here].

The Scottish First Minister (Alex Salmond) has said that the release of al-Megrahi was not a cause for regret - see here.  Another writer argues that the truth must be revealed - here.

Cameron is reported as having said of al-Megrahi - "He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history, in my view that man should have died in jail.  Full stop.  End of.  Nothing to add to that.  You don't release people who have been convicted of a crime that serious".

Is Cameron right?  I am not so sure that we should abandon compassion even in cases this serious.  As ever, your views are welcome.


  1. Not necesarily right given all the doubts about the trial, the withdrawal of the appeal etc but in the circumstances he did what he had to do. I think (am not a Conservative voter) that he pursued a clever middle way in US and am so pleased that he is not being sycophantic. On another level a bit of me would like him to nationalise BP and claim sovereign immunity and tell the greedy compensation hunting Americans to get lost. Not,I fear, very high-minded but also know that much of the furore is driven by deep US self interest and a desire to re-establish their oil industry pre-eminence.

  2. Ed (not Bystander)21 July 2010 at 23:58

    "Greedy compensation-hunting"? Like the fishermen and tourist workers, you mean? Those greedy people whose livelihoods have been wrecked? Get a grip, man.

  3. As to al_Megrahi : There was a time, in my lifeltime, when he would have been hung and the issue of ompassion would not have arisen. Had he been tried in any one of a number of democracies, the same fate would have befallen him. By abolishing capital punishment, we have "invented" this question for ourselves. Should we always hold out the hope for compassion - yes. We have a set of values towards which we strive and this would, in my view, include compassion. Was it merited in the specific case - no. Like Mr Cameron I believe that in this case justoce would have better served by resolving the question of his (al-Meggrahi's) guilt or not. If satisfied that we had locked up the wrong man then we should have taken the appropriate steps. If we were staisfied that the right person was detained, then the compassion question arises and I do not believe, that in the circumstances as I know them, that release was appropriate. I note (from my own experience) that predicting life expectancy in specific cases where the individual is not at immediate risk of dying, that time estimates are at best crude and often wrong. I am not at all surprised that he (as in the Ronnie Biggs case) survived much longer than the medical estimates suggested. This then raises the question as to who benefits from our compassion - the individual or their family and friends? In this case all have "done well" from the decision, save for the family and friends of the many victims. Our current approach to sentencing (and it was not always thus) makes much of the impact of crime on victims. We listen in court to victim statements and there cannot be a judge or magistrate in the country who does not consider this when determining sentence. The compassionate approach we have taken in this case sems to negate their views. I am not suggesting there sshould have been some sort of vox-pop amongst the victims: rather the state has an obligation to consider them. But we failed.

  4. Mr Cameron was saying that he should have died in jail. No room for compassion there. There may be some crimes so serious that they do not merit compassion. Those who managed the concentration camps of the 3rd Reich are perhaps an example. The Lockerbie case, whilst not on the absymal scale of the concentration camps, is so serious that many feel that compassion is inappropriate. As a civilised modern society we do not use capital punishment but the remainder of life in jail is thought by many to be appropriate for some.

    In saying all of the above, one has to be SURE that the person is guilty. Doubts have been raised in connection with al-Megrahi but they remain unresolved.

    This leads one to consider what "Justice" is actually about. There are many jurisprudential theories of justice. Allow me to put those to one side. Justice is about the individual who must not be wrongly convicted. It is about ensuring that the guilty do not avoid punishment. It is about victims. It is about ensuring that the criminal does not profit from his crime. It is about punishment of the criminal in a way which is proportionate to the crime proved against him. Compassion in appropriate cases is also a part of justice and is recognised in us having a law which permits the compassionate release of even those serving life sentences for heinous crimes.

    We live in an imperfect world but we must not give up on our fight for justice. From time to time, the ordinary people of the land need to remind those in authority where justice actually lies. It lies in the collective heart of the people and I hope that it will always do so.

    I have just posted about the Kaing Guek Eav (alias Comrade Duch) - just sentenced in Cambodia for his part in running the "killing fields" of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Does he deserve any compassion? The court found so - see Watching the Law blog.