In an article in today's "Scotland on Sunday" newspaper, Cardinal Keith O'Brien has defended the decision by the Scottish Government to release on compassionate grounds Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi. The full text of this article appears below.
Like many others, I have been following with interest the recent attempts by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Senate to summon Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill and the former UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to a hearing in Washington.
This was followed by the news that the Senate Committee was ready to send some of its members to the UK to question British witnesses on the release by the Scottish Government earlier this year of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.
The First Minister is reported as having said that there was “no way on earth” that Scottish Ministers would formally give evidence to a committee hearing of a foreign legislature, even if it were to be held in the UK. Adding pointedly that it was impossible to imagine US lawmakers agreeing to such an interrogation on foreign soil. I too believe, that Scottish Ministers are accountable to the Scottish Parliament and ultimately the Scottish people alone.
At the base of this dispute, there seems to be what might be termed, a ‘clash of cultures’. In Scotland over many years we have cultivated through our justice system what I hope can be described as a ‘culture of compassion’. On the other hand, there still exists in very many parts of the USA, if not nationally, an attitude towards the concept of justice, which can only be described as a ‘culture of vengeance’.
The murder of 243 innocent people on board Pan Am flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988 was an act of unbelievable horror and gratuitous barbarity. It is completely natural and understandable that many of those most directly affected, the bereaved and their families would want justice even vengeance. It is in the midst of such inhuman barbarism however that we must act to affirm our own humanity, it is in these moments of grief and despair that we must show the world that the standards of the murderer and his disdain for human life are not our standards. They may plunge to the depths of human conduct but we will not follow them.
For the Christian the teaching of St Paul in his letter to the Romans is clear “vengeance is mine says the Lord”, revenge is not a path we should take. A statement from the Criminal, Justice and Parole Division of the Scottish Government earlier this year stating that “The perpetration of an atrocity should not be a reason for losing sight of the values people in Scotland seek to uphold and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live the values of humanity and compassion”, I hope is a reflection of a view that would be held and endorsed by people of many faiths and none.
Since 1976 there have been 1,221 people executed in the USA. The United States execution rate is only outdone by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and China. These are not countries known for placing human rights on a pedestal. It is certainly invidious company for the world’s leading democracy to find itself in.
The steady rate at which judicial killing is used in the majority of States in the United States would suggest that the deterrent effect often proposed as a justification for such a policy is not working. On 13 May 2010, Michael Beuke, convicted of aggravated murder of one man and guilty of the attempted slayings of two others in 1983, lost his appeals before the US Supreme Court and was executed by llethal injection.
He had been on death row for over 26 years and was the 38th person put to death in Ohio since that State resumed the practice of the death sentence in 1999. Ohio has only one execution per month to give the ‘execution team’ (Ohio’s term) an opportunity to “recuperate” between executions. The fact that a virtual conveyor belt of killing operates among them does not seem to have persuaded Ohio’s legislators that their approach to justice is demonstrably and completely ineffective.
On 18 June 2010 Ronnie Lee Gardner was hooded, strapped to a chair and shot by a firing squad at a prison in Utah. He had been condemned to death for murder in 1985. He spent 25 years in solitary confinement, and ultimately was given an option as to how he preferred to die: by firing squad or by lethal injection.
While his actions were inexcusable his death did not bring back the life of his victim. His death will not prevent other violent murders. His death simply brought to an end a life of utter misery and darkness. His story is symptomatic of so many who sit incarcerated
within the US justice system waiting to die. Ronnie Lee Gardner was first picked up by the authorities at the age of two, abandoned, wandering the streets in a nappy. He was sniffing glue by the time he was six, taking heroin at 10 and sent to a mental home at 11 where he was sexually abused as a teenager. His descent into violence was as predictable as it was piteous.
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.” Perhaps they should direct their gaze inwards, rather than scrutinising the working of the Scottish justice system.
Scotland’s legal system allowed the Scottish Justice secretary to release Mr Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, following due process and based on clear medical advice. It was a decision for Scottish Ministers and no others to make. Scotland's justice system has embedded, alongside punishment, the idea of reform. It is one reason why the finality of the death penalty has rightly been rejected.
I believe that only God can forgive and show ultimate compassion to those who commit terrible crimes and I would rather live in a country where justice is tempered by mercy than exist in one where vengeance and retribution are the norm.