When the Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 deadly bombing of Pan Am flight 103 was freed from a Scottish jail in 2009, he supposedly had just 90 days to live, thanks to advanced prostate cancer. In fact, that medical prognosis formed the basis for his release “on compassionate grounds.” But, yesterday, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi — the man a Scottish court of law found responsible for the deaths of 270 people — put in an appearance at a pro-Qaddafi rally, outraging the British government and reviving the debate of whether he should have been released in the first place.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who returned to a hero’s welcome in Libya in 2009 after being released from a Scottish jail after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, appeared on Libyan state television wearing traditional local garb while sitting in a wheelchair at a tribal meeting in Tripoli. …
While announcing that Britian would officially recognize Libya’s opposition governing council on Wednesday, [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague reiterated the current British government’s fury over the freeing of Al-Megrahi after he was pictured at the rally. Hague scathingly described the medical advice that led to the 59-year-old’s release on compassionate grounds as “pretty worthless.”
“The appearance of Mr. al-Megrahi on our television screens is a further reminder that a great mistake was made when he was released,” Hague said. “This was absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
As some have pointed out, footage of the Lockerbie bomber was highly unlikely to have just randomly ended up on Libyan television. Hague clearly interpreted it as a provocation.
Questions have surrounded al-Megrahi’s conviction and release from the very beginning — so much so, in fact, that at least one analyst predicted a possible “miraculous recovery” back in 2009. Writing for “Foreign Policy,” Michael Wilkerson explained that al-Megrahi withdrew his second appeal so as to be released on medical grounds — but that appeal supposedly had a chance of succeeding. Wilkerson suggested Scotland might actually have released al-Megrahi to avoid a renewed discussion of his conviction — and to free the U.K. to protect its commercial contracts with Libya, unencumbered by a high-profile Libyan prisoner with an unsafe conviction (all using “respect for devolved powers” as the excuse to be both outraged at the release and accepting of it). Wilkerson wrapped his analysis of the reasons for al-Megrahi’s release with this intriguing paragraph:
To be clear, it is unlikely officials could fake the cancer diagnosis and Al-Megrahi does not look very well in the photos of his departure from Scotland. But well, who knows? Maybe he’ll make a miraculous recovery at home in Libya.
The evident inaccuracy of the medical advice that led to al-Megrahi’s release makes Wilkerson’s suggestions seems all the more plausible. That, to me, is both the fine and frustrating element of foreign policy: It all seems so calculated, a delicate weighing of so many varied interests. Gray creeps in where only black and white ought to be.