Calls for Lockerbie release probe

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Indy Politics

David Cameron was today under renewed pressure from US senators for an independent inquiry into the decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

The calls came after a review yesterday concluded that the former Labour administration did "all it could" to help Libya secure the release of the only man convicted of the bombing.

Democratic Senator for New Jersey Robert Menendez said it "really stretches the imagination" to accept the review's finding that there was no direct pressure from London on the Scottish government to free Megrahi.

"We renew our call again for an independent inquiry," said Mr Menendez. "It is important to get to the totality of the truth here."

Megrahi was released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds, after the Scottish government was told he had only three months to live. American fury at the decision was compounded by the hero's welcome he received in Tripoli, as well as the fact that he remains alive 18 months later.

The review of paperwork in the case by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell was ordered by Mr Cameron following his visit last year to the United States, where he faced claims that oil giant BP had lobbied for Megrahi's release because of the prospect of lucrative contracts with Libya.

Sir Gus said yesterday that he had found no evidence that BP tried to put pressure on the Scottish government, or that UK ministers pressed Edinburgh to clear the way for the release.

However, he found that British ministers believed Megrahi's release would be the "best outcome" as they feared that UK interests in Libya would be damaged if he was allowed to die in a Scottish jail.

Newly-declassified documents show that officials advised that they should "work actively but discreetly" for Megrahi's release and that promoting contacts between the Libyans and the Scottish executive should be "part of our game plan".

But he concluded that the decision to free him was taken by ministers in the Scottish government alone - as former Labour ministers and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond have always maintained.

While Sir Gus said he had found nothing in the paperwork which contradicted statements made at the time by ministers, Mr Cameron said it was also clear that they had not given a "full picture" of the government's position.

The Prime Minister described the decision to release Megrahi as "profoundly wrong" and said Labour ministers had "badly underestimated" the impact in both Britain and the US, where most of the 270 victims came from.

"This man was convicted of the largest mass murder in British history. That should have been coursing through ministerial veins and brains when they read these memos," he said.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown strongly defended his government's actions last night, saying that the review made clear that he had always treated Megrahi's release as a matter for Scottish ministers.

"When the issue came to me, I took the view - as the report confirms - that the British government should not pressure or attempt to use influence on this quasi-judicial decision of the Scottish minister," he said in a statement.

But New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg said in a statement: "The denials continue to ring hollow. The families have suffered long enough and it's time to acknowledge the truth: Justice was traded for commercial interests."

The report "acknowledges the government's desire to see a mass murderer released, yet tries to shift blame", said the Democratic senator.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Sir Gus's report was "deeply troubling", adding: "Economic and trade interests should never take precedence over matters of justice."