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Cardinal defends release of Lockerbie bomber

By on Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Cardinal O'Brien says American lawmakers should 'turn their gaze inwards, rather than scrutinising the working of the Scottish justice system' (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal O'Brien says American lawmakers should 'turn their gaze inwards, rather than scrutinising the working of the Scottish justice system' (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has defended the decision to free the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, saying that US politicians should not try to interfere in Scotland’s domestic affairs.

The cardinal said that given the “steady rate” of executions in the United States, American lawmakers should “turn their gaze inwards, rather than scrutinising the working of the Scottish justice system”.

He said Scotland’s legal system had allowed Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last August “on compassionate grounds, following due process and based on clear medical advice”.

“It was a decision for Scottish ministers and no others to make,” the cardinal wrote in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

“Scotland’s justice system has embedded, alongside punishment, the idea of reform,” he said. “It is one reason why the finality of the death penalty has rightly been rejected.”

Then, accusing the United States of adopting a “conveyor belt” approach to capital punishment, he added: “I would rather live in a country where justice is tempered by mercy than exist in one where vengeance and retribution are the norm.”

The cardinal’s comments were made in support of Mr MacAskill and First Minister Alex Salmond, who declined an invitation to give evidence to a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The hearing was called in response to speculation that al-Megrahi’s early release had been arranged so that BP, the oil company, would be allowed to explore fields in Libya, a charge that BP denied.

Al-Megrahi, a former intelligence officer, was sentenced in 2002 to a minimum of 27 years in jail for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans and 11 people on the ground.

He was released just seven years into his sentence after physicians concluded he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had just months to live.

Al-Megrahi remains alive nearly a year after his release, however, leading David Cameron, the Prime Minister, to concede in late July that his release was a mistake.

Cardinal O’Brien said he thought that at the “basis of the dispute” between US senators and Scottish ministers was a “clash of cultures”.

He said in recent years Scotland had cultivated a “culture of compassion”, whereas many parts of the United States had adopted a “culture of vengeance” in their approach to justice.

He said although the Lockerbie bombing was an act of “unbelievable horror”, it would be a mistake to show a similar “disdain” for human life and civilised values.

He wrote that there had been 1,221 people executed in American states since 1976, a rate surpassed only by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and China. “These are not countries known for placing human rights on a pedestal,” he wrote. “It is certainly invidious company for the world’s leading democracy to find itself in.”

He said the stream of executions suggested that “judicial killing” was failing as a deterrent against crime in the United States. He cited multiple cases, including the June 18 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah, after 25 years on death row, as “symptomatic” of an unduly harsh system.

“His death will not prevent other violent murders,” Cardinal O’Brien wrote. “His death simply brought to an end a life of utter misery and darkness.”

The cardinal continued: “Perhaps the consciences of some Americans, especially members of the US Senate, should be stirred by the ways in which ‘justice’ is administered in so many of their own states.

“Perhaps it is time for them to ‘cast out the beam from their own eye before seeking the mote in their brothers,’ ” he said.

The cardinal’s remarks reflect the indignation some Scots feel about perceived US interference in their sovereign affairs.

This began in early July when Senators Frank Lautenberg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charles E Schumer, and Robert Menendez called for an inquiry by the British government into the release of al-Megrahi.

They invited Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary at the time of his release, to give evidence at a July 29 hearing in Washington along with BP executives, Mr MacAskill and Mr Salmond, all of whom declined.

Senator Menendez later appeared on BBC Two’s Newsnight programme, saying that either he or his representatives would be willing to travel to Scotland to question witnesses if none wanted to travel to the United States.

Mr Salmond responded by saying “there was no way on earth” that Scottish ministers would give evidence to a committee hearing of a foreign legislature, even if it was in Scotland. He said he expected that US senators would similarly resist interrogation on foreign soil.

  • GFFM

    Appalling is the word I would use if I could speak with the Cardinal for five minutes. The Lockerbie bomber killed 270 people in a terrorist attack. This is a crime against the US and the entire world and this is what justifies the punishment. It is so self evident that it's shocking that it has to be said. As for the Cardinal's facile view of American culture, it is typical anti-American stereotypes which Americans have to deal with on a daily basis. But what is most disturbing is this: the Cardinal's logic is the same used by prelates in shielding priests who have abused children from being arrested and punished by secular authorities. He doesn't seem to understand that forgiveness and mercy does not preclude mercy. This is pretty basic stuff and a Cardinal of the Church doesn't seem to grasp it. It could be his anti-American sentiments simply blind him to basic reason. One can only wonder.

  • RidersontheStorm

    Anti- American?? No Way!! Some Yanks do more than enough to cause other Americans to wonder 'why do they hate us?' The Cardinal is 100% correct – the Americans are vengeful and need to learn about and show more mercy – Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown unto them.

  • Sepol888

    I am technically an American citizen, and His Eminence is indeed 100% correct. I thank him for giving a name to the “Culture of Vengeance” that prevails in the American justice system. I pray that it is replaced with a “Culture of Compassion”.

  • RidersontheStorm

    Well said, Sepo – Prayer = Love is the only weapon we are allowed to use and it is the mightiest weapon of all.

  • edingwc

    The US are not the rulers of the world and therefore cannot and should not demand the presence of ministers from other sovereign powers. Cardinal O'Brien is showing the way to forgiveness and re-emphasizing the need for compassion. Megrahi may have been involved in the Lockerbie bombing, though many questions still remain. Have we as a nation (Scotland) dismissed the concept of compassion? He may have lived longer than his prognosis but how could any one have known that at the time? If he is guilty as charged, he is answerable to his conscience and ultimately to God.

  • US Irish

    I live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a state that (like most states) has no death penalty. The courts here are focused on rehabilitation. The idea that we have electric chairs set up for every shoplifter is not accurate. If anything, our justice system will let repeat criminals go free over and over. Heck, the guy who shot President Reagan was recently released from the mental hospital he was (compassionately) confined to.

    Also, since when did Scotland decide that a life sentence for mass-murder is “vengeful?” All we Americans wanted was for this piece of filth to serve out the Scottish court's sentence. Was that so much to ask? Are we so mean because we want the guy who killed 100+ of our citizens to live in a nice Scottish prison?

    This is how I imagine the Scottish justice minister explained it to Obama:

    Obama: “Good morning, I understand you have some very important news to share about the vital American-Scottish relationship.”
    Scot: “Let me cut to the chase, lad. We let the guy who blew up your plane go.”
    Obama: “Go where?”
    Scot: “Home. It was getting late and his family missed him.”
    Obama: “I don't understand. Is this some kind of national prank day over there?”
    Scot: “No, I'm being totally serious. We decided that there was a pressing need to create a diplomatic incident by ensuring that a mass-murderer got his fair share of compassion.”
    Obama: “I just woke up and I'm a bit groggy. Can you please explain again. You did what now?”
    Scot: “It's a Scottish Justice thing. You wouldn't understand. Our sense of sympathy for killers makes us superior to your 'prison' approach.”
    Obama: “Are you drunk?”

  • USA Irish

    I know I'm just a redneck American, but doesn't forgiveness presuppose taking responsibility for the crime?

    al-Megrahi still says he didn't do it, the evidence and Scottish verdict to the contrary. How can you forgive someone who won't ask for it? What kind of country have you become when your top international priority is to forgive a mass murderer? And who says you have to RELEASE him to forgive him?

    It's nice that you all have this fellow on your minds all the time and his incarceration weighed heavily on your hearts, but it's really made you a joke in the rest of the world.

  • Caledonianpict

    The last poster,USA Irish,couldn't even name Kenny MacAskill,the Scottish Justice Secretary even though he was named in the article! Says it al reaaly! I 100% agree with Cardinal O'Brien!