Bush deserves to take heat on Libby decision

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am

To gauge the disturbing nature of US President George W. Bush's intervention to spare a convicted former vice-presidential aide from prison, just imagine if it happened in Hong Kong. Let's say a senior official serving a key minister was, like Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, sentenced to 30 months' jail having been found guilty by a jury of perjury and obstructing justice.

The chief executive intervenes so the offender does not have to serve jail time but stops short of a full pardon, describing the original sentence as 'excessive' and leaving a hefty fine in place.

Howls of outrage would rightly rise across the city, questioning Hong Kong's proud judicial independence and the role of government under 'one country, two systems'; mass protests would be a distinct possibility.

Mr Bush also is facing stiff criticism, albeit not on the predicted Hong Kong scale. He deserves to face considerable heat, given a move that mocks the higher motives of the US justice system. Article II of the US constitution gives a US president essentially unrestricted powers of pardon, a right exercised by all of Mr Bush's modern peers.

Reflecting the compassionate nature of the power, many unjustly convicted people have been quietly freed from a system plagued by inconsistencies and relatively high rates of incarceration. So, too, have a disturbing number of political cronies.

Mr Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, spent his last hours pardoning his brother, a political financier and another tainted associate. Mr Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, pardoned Reagan-era officials convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal. Before that, president Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for Watergate in a then-controversial decision now widely seen to have been in the best interests of the country.

Libby's conviction for lying under oath will face no such revision. While he avoided prosecution over the central thrust of the inquiry - the politically motivated leaking of the name of a CIA agent - justice must be seen to be done. As Mr Bush stated in his attempted defence 'our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth'.