From the offset, Gaddafi seemed to have a strange faith in the Scottish authorities. Al-Megrahi would have a fair trial in Scotland, he said, because the judges would not face “pressures from intelligence services nor to a British Government order.” It was as if he thought Scotland was already an independent country, hostile to England. At the time (1999), some wondered if he was trying to stir up mischief in the year the Scottish Parliament was being set up. But I doubt he could have imagined just how devolution would work in his favour – that al-Megrahi would be a political football that these first-time politicians in Edinburgh could not resist kicking. At 1pm today, Kenny MacAskill – the Justice Secretary in Scotland – is likely to announce that al-Megrahi is flying home to Libya. He has already been rewarded by headlines at home. "MacAskill to show mercy" is the splash headline of today’s Scotsman.
In my political column today, I say there’s no medical reason for this: the cancer treatment in Libya is hardly better than Scotland’s. There’s no question of his guilt: the evidence against him was overwhelming, due to the miracles of forensics after the crash. While he was not the mastermind, his role was found by five judges to be crystal clear. Plenty of terminally ill prisoners die in jail – so why should Meghrai, serving 27 years for 270 counts of murder – be given compassionate release? And given that most victims were American, should he not pay more heed to the heartfelt pleas (new ones today) of the families of those killed?
All too much of this is to do with theatrics; the phrase "Scottish government" – which Salmond’s administration is not – being repeated world over. It’s about projecting that image, of an independent Scotland thumbing its nose at Westminster and even the mighty America. It’s about yanking these levers of power because they are there, and because they make a noise. I could be wrong and MacAskill could say "actually he brought a plane down over a Scottish village so he’s staying in prison." But I doubt it.
Magnus Linklater, former editor of The Scotsman, has written eloquently about how all this goes is a travesty of the Scottish judicial system. Colin Boyd, former Lord Advocate, is saying – through friends – that this will damage the international standing of the system. All told, this looks set to be a bleak day for Scottish justice.