LONDON – A Scottish cardinal defended the 2009 decision to free the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and said U.S. politicians should not try to interfere in the domestic affairs of his country.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh said that given the “steady rate” of executions in the United States, American lawmakers should “turn their gaze inwards, rather than scrutinizing the working of the Scottish justice system.”
He said Scotland’s legal system had allowed Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last August “on compassionate grounds, following due process and based on clear medical advice.”
“It was a decision for Scottish ministers and no others to make,” the cardinal wrote in Scotland on Sunday newspaper Aug. 8.
“Scotland’s justice system has embedded, alongside punishment, the idea of reform,” he said. “It is one reason why the finality of the death penalty has rightly been rejected.”
Then, accusing the United States of adopting a “conveyor belt” approach to capital punishment, he added, “I would rather live in a country where justice is tempered by mercy than exist in one where vengeance and retribution are the norm.”
The cardinal’s comments were made in support of MacAskill and First Minister Alex Salmond, who declined an invitation to give evidence to a hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The hearing was called in response to speculation that al-Megrahi’s early release had been arranged so that BP, the oil company, would be allowed to explore fields in Libya, a charge that BP denied.
Al-Megrahi, a former intelligence officer, was sentenced in 2002 to a minimum of 27 years in jail for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans and 11 people on the ground.
He was released just seven years into his sentence after physicians concluded he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had just months to live.
Al-Megrahi remains alive nearly a year after his release, however, leading British Prime Minister David Cameron to concede in late July that his release was a mistake.
Cardinal O’Brien said he thought that at the “basis of the dispute” between U.S. senators and Scottish ministers was a “clash of cultures.”
He said in recent years Scotland had cultivated a “culture of compassion,” whereas many parts of the United States had adopted a “culture of vengeance” in their approach to justice.
He said although the Lockerbie bombing was an act of “unbelievable horror,” it would be a mistake to show a similar “disdain” for human life and civilized values.
He wrote that there had been 1,221 people executed in American states since 1976, a rate surpassed only by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and China.
“These are not countries known for placing human rights on a pedestal,” he wrote. “It is certainly invidious company for the world’s leading democracy to find itself in.”
He said the stream of executions suggested that “judicial killing” was failing as a deterrent against crime in the United States. He cited multiple cases, including the June 18 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah, after 25 years on death row, as “symptomatic” of an unduly harsh system.
“His death will not prevent other violent murders,” Cardinal O’Brien wrote. “His death simply brought to an end a life of utter misery and darkness.”
The cardinal continued: “Perhaps the consciences of some Americans, especially members of the U.S. 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,’“ he said.
The cardinal’s remarks reflect the indignation some Scots feel about perceived U.S. interference in their sovereign affairs.
This began in early July when Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called for an inquiry by the British government into the release of al-Megrahi.
They invited Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary at the time of his release, to give evidence at a July 29 hearing in Washington along with BP executives and MacAskill and Salmond, all of whom declined.
Menendez later appeared on BBC Two’s Newsnight program, saying that either he or his representatives would be willing to travel to Scotland to question witnesses if none wanted to travel to the United States.
Salmond responded by saying “there was no way on earth” that Scottish ministers would give evidence to a committee hearing of a foreign legislature, even if it was in Scotland. He said he expected that U.S. senators would similarly resist interrogation on foreign soil.