Sunday 30 August 2009

When to Release Prisoners

The recent release of Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, on "compassionate" grounds has raised many issues regarding the release of convicted prisoners. This is especially true of those convicted of terrorist murders. In my view, this crime falls into a category all of its own.

Let us not fool ourselves. This was no "compassionate" release, at least I hope that it was not. Even the attempt to dress this up as such has been very weak. This is clearly a strategic move in conjunction with the Libyan government. When is a strategic move like this justified? It is hard to judge whether this move is justified or not as we have no sight of what price the Libyans are paying. Is it oil? or something else? No doubt this will all come out in the end. It seems as though the Scottish government felt that the release was justified. By all accounts, the British government also agrees with the release. Gordon Brown condemned the manner in which the prisoner was afforded a hero's welcome in Tripoli, but did not condemn the release itself. Recent documents point to the fact that the government in Westminster was aware of, and involved in the release. The American government has vehemently criticised the release, along with a number of European governments.

From an Israeli perspective, it is interesting to watch these events from a slight distance for once. Usually, it is us who are involved in the turmoil of having to decide whether releasing murderous thugs is justified, possibly allowing them to murder again. And it is us who have to consider the families of their victims who deserve their justice. So, for now, it is good to be a bystander. But our turn will hopefully present itself once more in the near future in the form of an agreement for the return of Gilad Shalit.

The dilemma associated with such prisoner release deals is acute. I don't believe that any politician or government employee felt satisfaction in the release of Megrahi. There is no doubt that this decision was taken with a great deal of reluctance and pain. But how does one evaluate whether the quid-pro-quo is worth the price? What national interest can be so vital that it justifies the insult that is heaped upon the families of the victims, and that drags the system of justice through the mud? In the case of Megrahi, we do not know.

In the case of the Gilad Shalit, any deal for his release will undoubtedly involve the release of many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. This will include many who are terrorists and who have murdered innocent Israelis. This does not consider the hundreds of prisoners who have already been released in shows of "goodwill". This is a euphemism for the release of prisoners without any direct consideration in return. Will these actions be justified? There appear to be many conflicting views.

The Israeli government, by even contemplating continuing negotiations on this basis, has shown its agreement to the principle. This is despite the statements by government ministers that a deal for Gilad's release should not be at any price. So what is a price worth paying? Is it too much to release 400 prisoners? or 450? To me, this is a really tough call to make.

It is my hope that the families of the victims whose murderers have been imprisoned can understand that even this will not return their loved ones. Justice may have been done, but their loved ones cannot be reunited with their families. In the case of Gilad Shalit, he can be returned to his family. If the release of a murderer, or 400 murderers can return Gilad to his family, I feel that this is a risk worth taking. This is an opportunity to change the future of a family that has suffered so much in the past. It also does not preclude the responsibility to keep a careful intelligence watch on the released prisoners, and to ensure that any future attempts to take valuable lives and commit terrorist actions be prevented in every way possible.

My heart goes out to the Lockerbie families, and to the families of the victims of the terrorists who may be released in a deal to free Gilad. They deserve their justice. I feel sure that Megrahi will not re-offend, but I feel that the British government owes it to the Lockerbie families to explain what has been extracted in return.

For the Israelis, seeing Gilad with his family will be enough for us. Let us pray this day comes soon.

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