EDITORIAL - Unheroic release: The Lockerbie bomber should have stayed in prison

Written by Susan Mannella on .

It has been 21 years since the families of Seton Hill College students Beth Ann Johnson and Elyse Saraceni, and 268 others held their loved ones close.

It has been only eight years since the only person convicted in the plot that killed them all, blowing Flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, was sent to prison for murdering 11 people on the ground and everyone on the plane. The passengers included 189 Americans, many of them young people returning to the states for Christmas holidays.

In a miscarriage of justice that turned the definition of "compassion" upside down, the Scottish government released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who had been imprisoned for only eight years of his 27-year minimum sentence. Mr. Megrahi has prostate cancer, and Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said Scottish law permits release on compassionate grounds when prisoners are terminally ill.

He said "our belief dictates that justice be served but mercy be shown," but his decision was too little justice and misdirected mercy.

Many of the families who lost relatives in the bombing spent years pursuing justice, first waiting three years until anyone was charged, then eight more before Libya turned over for trial both Mr. Megrahi and his co-defendant, who was acquitted.

In 2003, 15 years after the Dec. 21, 1988, tragedy, it seemed that the government of Moammar Gadhafi finally had taken responsibility, agreeing to pay $1.5 billion to compensate the victims' families. That long-overdue acknowledgement was rendered moot on Thursday, when Mr. Gadhafi's son accompanied the released prisoner on a private flight back to Tripoli, where hundreds of young Libyans who had been bused to the military airport greeted him with waving Libyan and Scottish flags.

The American system of justice is built on the twin rails of punishment and rehabilitation. It holds that punishment must fit the crime, a premise that concludes that taking a life is so egregious an act that it often warrants taking away a killer's freedom for life. In Mr. Megrahi's case, he committed murder 270 times over.

To have him released to a hero's welcome was salt in a newly fresh wound of hundreds of American families. It was neither just nor merciful.


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