Libya broke pledge over Lockerbie bomber, Scottish minister says
Libya broke a pledge to give the Lockerbie bomber a "low key" reception after his release from jail last week, Scotland's justice minister lamented yesterday, while defending the decision to free him.
In a stormy grilling at an emergency session of Scotland's Parliament, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill reiterated that his decision was taken entirely on compassionate grounds, and not for trade or diplomatic reasons.
"Assurances had been given by the Libyan government that any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion," he said, defending his decision to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi who was given a hero's welcome in Tripoli.
"It is a matter of great regret that Mr al-Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner," he added, before being questioned by lawmakers over the release which has triggered fury in the United States.
The US administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the victims' families have all slammed the release of Mr Megrahi on the grounds that he is dying of cancer.
Mr Megrahi, 57, is the only person convicted over the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The majority of the 270 victims were American.
The Libyan - who has terminal prostate cancer - was jailed for life in 2001 over the worst terror attack in British history, but served just eight years before his release last Thursday.
On his return to Tripoli he was welcomed by hundreds of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags, while he has since had a televised meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"It was deeply regrettable what took place," Mr MacAskill said at yesterday's sometimes testy Parliament session.
But he insisted that he took his decision entirely on compassionate grounds under Scotland's laws, and after consulting widely, including with the US and Libyan governments.
Critics have suggested that the decision was linked to trade deals with Tripoli, or Britain's interests in Libya's enormous oil and gas reserves.
Mr MacAskill rejected this, saying: "It was not based on political, diplomatic or economic considerations".
"In Scotland we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity...The perpetration of an outrage ... cannot and should not be the basis for losing sight of who we are," he added.
FBI chief Robert Mueller denounced Mr MacAskill's decision in a letter to the Scottish minister at the weekend, saying that it "makes a mockery of the rule of law" and "gives comfort to terrorists around the world".
The former Scottish chief prosecutor who launched the case against Mr Megrahi hit back at Mr Mueller's comments.
"As a former Lord Advocate I'm quite appalled that the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, should have set his face so openly against Scotland," Peter Fraser told the Courier newspaper.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also denied that the decision gives succour to terrorists.
"This was a decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland. I don't see that anyone can argue that this gives succour," he said.
The fall-out could have serious repercussions for the Scottish government and is by far the toughest challenge the Scottish National Party has faced since taking office in 2007.
It could go further if a no-confidence motion is put forward in Holyrood, the semi-autonomous Edinburgh Parliament - although there was no immediate sign of such a move after yesterday's debate.