August 25, 2009

Compassionate Release

Scotland recently released Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 on compassionate grounds. Al-Megrahi has terminal cancer and was released to be with his family in Libya before he dies. Scotland also has a formal policy of compassion in their justice system.
Obviously, the relatives of people who died on that flight have been very vocally opposed, and have been joined by President Obama. Scots seem split on the issue. Supposedly Libya agreed that he would not receive a hero's welcome when he returned to the country, but was greeted by throngs of cheering people. There's also a rumor/conspiracy theory that Gordon Brown supported Scotland's release of al-Megrahi as a negotiating tactic in securing more trade with Libya.


So, what are your thoughts? Should he have been released? Is the justification practical (increased trade) or moral (compassion)? Should there be a general policy of compassion in criminal justice and if so, are there exceptions (say, terrorists?)?

7 comments:

Sarah said...

To start - there is a policy of compassionate care in the penal system (frankly even more so in Europe). He would be able to get medical treatment, be kept comfortable, have increased visitation with his family, etc. The idea that the only method to provide compassionate care is release is ridiculous. That may be the ideal method to people incarcerated, but it certainly doesn't negate the efforts made by corrections to provide care to those in facilities.

Persoanlly, I don't think he should have been released. First - the retribution aspect of incarceration is not served at all. He spent 9ish years under house arrest in Libya with his children and family. And has spent less than 10 years in the Scotland prison system. Considering the 280+ victims, that is hardly parity. The idea that a murderer should be punished for his crimes is not met when he is released after a mere 8 years.

Second - the deterrent interest of incarceration is not met. Before you all freak out - I know that terrorists would not stop acting like terrorists when they seen a peer be incarcerated. BUT the leniency is broadcast and that leniency has an effect that I believe sends a message to potential terrorists that their punishment will not be as bad as previously thought.

Finally - it bothers me that when men and women become judges, often they loose their common sense. I know that there have been some questions as to the guilt of the defendant and questions about the quality of the lab work and appropriateness of the investigation. Just because these doubts are posited does not necessarily mean that they are true. What defendant doesn't cry foul at the investigation, physical evidence and testimony that was used against him? Judges frequently forget that people in uncomfortable positions will argue anything & everything to get out - just because an allegation is made, it doesn't make it reliable. After a trial and a weighing of the evidence, a venerable judge found him guilty (it is harder to win a bench trial most times) and that should benefit from some amount of deference.

The idea that nations or persons could financially benefit from this is disgusting.

Drew said...

It's worth noting that, outside of the United States, he is widely believed to be absolutely, 100% innocent.

Drew said...

Sarah, your arguments don't hold water. The retribution argument fails because there is no option on the table that would fulfill it. The options are that he serves 8 years, or he serves 8 years plus the three months that he has left to live. That is not a significant difference.

The deterrence arguement is, all due respect, laughable. Do you really think potential terrorists are going to be emboldened by the fact that, in the event they get a terminal illness while in prison, they might be released a few months in advance of their death? Wow, what a bonus!

Obama's position is perfectly understandable, and appropriate, but it's pure posturing. He has to object to the release, because otherwise he's tacitly admitting that the US intelligence community basically railroaded this man. And with Holder appointing a prosecutor to investigate torture charges, he really can't afford to equivocate on this.

Drew said...

I can't really vote in the poll. I don't really have an opinion on whether or not he should have been released. But I don't have a problem with it.

MosBen said...

I thought about giving more specific options, but then I decided to make the poll a place where you have to take a definitive stance. I mean, he's either got to be released or not released, so if the decision was in your hands, what do you do?

Personally, I tend to agree with Drew's points. I don't think any terrorist activity is deterred by keeping a dying man in jail for three more months. If anything, compassion from the West in instances like this might humanize us to people that might otherwise hate us. Or maybe not. Maybe it won't have any effect. There's no reason to think it could make them hate us more, and there's no reason to think that the possibility of developing a terminal disease and therefore getting a little time with the fam before dying is going to make terrorism much more attractive than it might otherwise be.

There's also no reason that I can see to think that a difference of three months is going to make this bargain, where we trade incarceration for crimes, feel any better. If he were imprisoned for eighty years, the people that want him to pay would wish that he'd be imprisoned for a hundred years. There's simply no amount of punishment that will satisfy the impulse to punish him.

That said, I'm not sure I could let him out. I think it's an incredibly brave thing to do, and I have a great respect for Scotland for going through with it, knowing the huge amount of flack that would come their way.

Neal said...

Does anyone actually believe that there wasn't an ulterior motive to this guy's release? Sure, he may be dying of cancer, but Gadhafi is trying (rather successfully) to reintegrate Libya with the international community. He gave up his country's nuclear program, and Libya does have a decent supply of oil and a stable government, which is probably why it is currently one of Africa's richest and most stable countries at this point.

It appears to me that regardless of societal interests such as deterrence, retribution and the like, the driving forces behind his release were money, power an influence. I don't care if there was video of this guy killing babies by stuffing kittens up their assholes. He still would have been released to placate our new buddy country. It's also funny to read the articles on NJ.come about how Gadhafi will be setting up a tent in someone's yard in North Jersey (Englewood, I think), and aside from token protests by our esteemed senators, he will be permitted to do it.

To me, this is not about compassionate release at all. This is simply politics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in our flawed world, once he's convicted and exhausted his appeal process, there's no DNA evidence and no witnesses recanting as he's about to be sacrificed to old smokey, he should die in prison.

Drew said...

Why shouldn't Gadhafi be permitted to stay on land owned by the Libyan embassy? The problem with that situation is not that Gadhafi is coming to New Jersey. The problem is the token protests by politicians who know they don't have a leg to stand on.

But it's in part due to those political considerations that you mentioned that I don't feel I can answer the poll question. As I said, I don't have a problem with his release, because I don't see what possible harm it could cause, but that's not the same as being in favor of it. It definitely looks fishy. Not half as fishy as the conviction, but fishy all the same.