As it’s the first anniversary of Scottish ministers releasing Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, on medical advice suggesting he only had months to live, it’s interesting to re-examine the logic of his release.
Three months was posited as a “reasonable” life expectancy, but a year on Megrahi’s still alive and kicking (albeit still terminally ill and under palliative care only), whilst Libya continue to celebrate his homecoming, and a Foreign Office spokesperson comments: "The government is clear that Megrahi's release was a mistake.”
But there is a logical flaw underlying the entire debate over whether or not he should have been released. Commercial pressure is one thing, but the argument is defective. Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment. “Life” does not literally mean life. If it did, it would be certain that he would die in prison, whether or not that death was foreseeable (i.e. he was terminally ill).
As it is, he was to serve a minimum term of 27 years, which was backdated to 1999. This would take him to the age of 74. As Libyan male life expectancy is 72 (and Megrahi, a Libyan, has lived in Libya for most of his life), there was still a strong likelihood that he would die in prison.
Therefore, terminal illness was not a logical reason for early release, irrespective of the accuracy of the prognosis. If it were, you could have said, at the time of sentence, that he was only likely to live to 72. Therefore, he should only be sentenced to 25 years – indeed, a bit less than that to give him the opportunity to go home to die.
If his conviction was unsafe, then the appeal should have taken its course. But, of course, there is the problem that this might have taken longer than he had to live. The given medical prognosis would have been a valid reason to fast-track the appeal.
If (which we still don’t know for sure) there was compelling fresh evidence, then the court could have granted him bail pending appeal (an appeal which he then dropped). It might even have allowed him back to Libya, (this would have involved the UK, rather than the Scottish, Government). This would have been regardless of his medical condition. As it stands, the debate still rests on medical opinion, when really that seems to be irrelevant.