Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Geoffrey Robertson: Megrahi should never have been freed

Geoffrey Robertson is an eminent QC (Queen's Counsel - a senior barrister, from the ranks of which the judiciary is drawn). Geoffrey Robertson has an opinion:

Geoffrey Robertson: Megrahi should never have been freed

I'm struggling to put into words my mental process, just now. First, I think the discussion is irrelevant - Megrahi's been released, and Libya won't be giving him up again, I doubt, so bitching about the correctness of Scottish Justice Secretary MacAskill's decision is about as complete a waste of time and energy as it is possible to conceive. Unless, of course, Mr Robertson perceives that he may be able to influence future, similar decisions?

However, Mr Robertson's position is clear - he didn't want Megrahi released. He's constructed an argument, very similar to the one I made in my previous post, to the effect that MacAskill should have stayed well away from the decision, which was already being considered by the judiciary. Robertson believes that MacAskill should atone for his error, or else be dismissed. Now, I am unclear as to the legal minutiae, here, but I'd be prepared to wager that MacAskill was within his remit to intervene. One may not like the tack that MacAskill's intervention took, but if he had the legal standing to take the decision, and the legal ground on which to decide in the way he did, then I don't see that there's any argument.

Now, to compassion. Well, I'm not going to second guess MacAskill, here. I'm going to assume that the true motivation for Megrahi's release was compassion. I'm going to assume that MacAskill exercized what he believed to be compassion in granting the release. Mr Robertson's view of compassion is stated: we don't execute murderers, in the UK - and that's the best that one might anticipate. I don't see much point in arguing that, to be honest - each person has their own view of what "compassion" amounts to - indeed, dependent upon how revolted we are by the behaviour under scrutiny, our definition of "compassion" might well be flexible. In any event, Robertson advises us that MacAskill's compassion is misplaced, because it was not appreciated by the person upon whom it was bestowed. I think Megrahi's gratitude is probably irrelevant to the question, but that's just my view.

Now, I must ask you to permit a brief digression, because I'm a little bit uncomfortable with the argument that Robertson makes a propos Human Rights/abolition of the death penalty, but I'm not quite sure why... Only nation states may legally kill people. War and capital crimes are the only circumstances when state-sponsored homicide is permissible. Now, war isn't relevant to this discussion, and I'm not about to make the puerile argument that because world leaders can kill thousands via "legitimate" airstrikes and bombardment, an indiviudal should be permitted to knock off a few hundred in a terrorist act. Nor that if one punishes the terrorist, one should punish the leaders, too. Who'd want to run for high office, if that became the norm?

So much for that. Now, Robertson links the abolition of the death penalty (for international crimes), to the certainty with which politicians can assure other politicians that a person convicted of a certain crime will never be freed. Thus, when Robin Cook promised Madeleine Allbright, nobody should have made a liar of him. But, Mr Robertson, Mr Cook's word was not Law - it's not enforceable. Even if Mr Cook had passed a law to that effect, is it too commonplace to note that no parliament may bind a future parliament, and the law thus introduced could be overturned?

The upshot is that no such global assurance may be given by any politician - the best that Cook could promise was that he would not release Megrahi (and he didn't). And any politician (Allbright, in this case), who secures such an assurance is stupid to believe that the agreement is between anybody other than the assurer and the assuree. Aside to Ms Allbright: as far as I know, we don't do political prisoners, in the UK. Once again, I find myself stumbling upon an instant when a politician has sought to influence a legal matter. Learn your lesson, guys: create the system, allow it to run its course, have some faith in your judiciary and don't go changing the rules in isolated instances in order to suit yourselves, because as soon you introduce uncertainty, the Law is brought into disrepute.

One final word on punishment, which everybody seems to be obsessed by. When a person does something wrong, they must be punished - that's the principle upon which you work, is it not? An eye for an eye, and all that? And there are those among you who scrutinize behaviour very closely, in order to seek out aberrance, like the Witchfinders of olde. You will learn nothing in that way. On the contrary, you scorn the opportunity to learn.

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